Demonstrators in Baltimore candidly admit that although the uprising happening in their city was triggered by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, it is more so a response to the epidemic of police-involved deaths in their city and throughout the United States.
“Freddie Gray's murder was just the most recent event,” community organizer Mike Coleman told teleSUR, before listing a series of deaths of black men at the hands of police.
See Related: Behind Baltimore's Anger
It has become increasingly clear that the issue of police-involved deaths and police brutality in the United States is not unique to one city. The mass protests following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have shown a spotlight on the propensity of police officers to resort to lethal force when dealing with racialized and especially black people.
Nonetheless, it is startling is just how extensive the problem of police-involved deaths is in the United States.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) of the Justice Department revealed in a study released in Nov. that at least 4,813 people had died either during their arrest or while in custody of police between 2003 and 2009.
Of these, 61 percent were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel, in other words, directly attributed to the actions of police officers. Moreover, despite comprising just over 30 percent of the total population, 52 percent of the victims of arrest-related deaths were identified as either black or “Hispanic.”
The BJS defines an arrest-related death as “any death (e.g., gunshot wound, cardiac arrest, or drowning) that occurs during an interaction with state or local law enforcement personnel” and includes deaths while the person is in police custody.
These numbers are likely under-reporting the extent of police-involved deaths, as the BJS readily admits its data is incomplete, with many states failing to report figures.
To compile its data, the FBI relied only on two sources: the Supplementary Homicide Reports and the Arrest-Related Deaths program.
In a March report on the data quality of the BJS figures, the FBI admitted that the Supplementary Homicide Reports, which only cover “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement, are “estimated to cover 46% of officer-involved homicides at best.”
Meanwhile the FBI states that Arrest-Related Deaths program “captured about 50% of the estimated law enforcement homicides during 2003–09 and 2011.”
The officials responsible for reporting the figures for each state also rely on a flawed methodology, monitoring media reports and the Internet, with only 18 percent utilizing law enforcement agency reports.
Many deaths due to actions of law enforcement ultimately go unidentified, despite the fact that the U.S. Congress passed the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act in 2000. Though that law expired in 2006, a bill to reauthorize it was approved in late 2014. A separate 1994 law requires the Justice Department to publish an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”
The Guardian newspaper reported last month that there may actually been 7,427 law enforcement homicides in the U.S. during the years 2003-2009 and 2011..