Fact check: Police killed more unarmed Black men in 2019 than conservative activist claimed

Fact check: Police killed more unarmed Black men in 2019 than conservative activist claimed
Fact check: Police killed more unarmed Black men in 2019 than conservative activist claimed  

The claim: U.S. police killed eight unarmed Black men in 2019

In response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, Charlie Kirk, the founder and president of the conservative group Turning Point USA, posted a statement on Facebook.

Kirk claimed in a video posted to Facebook during the Blackout Tuesday campaign that, according to the Washington Post's database of police shootings, police killed eight unarmed Black men in 2019. Other Facebook pages have reposted the video, adding to its viewership.

Kirk uses this figure while arguing systemic racism does not exist within law enforcement. He did not mention in the video that Black Americans make up 13% of the population "but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans," as the Post reported. He also did not mention, as explained by Naomi Zack in her book on racial profiling and police homicide, "when 4.4 million random stop and frisks were conducted in New York City, during the period from 2004 [to] 2012, even though Blacks were disproportionately singled out, the incidence of further police action was less for Blacks than for whites."

Kirk's claim that police killed eight unarmed Black men in 2019 is incorrect for several reasons.

Kirk cites the Post's database, which only includes people shot by police, not killed through other means like beating or tasering. He also cites a database that is incomplete. The number of unarmed Black men police shot and killed is likely higher than the Post's count due to a lack of comprehensive police records, which Kirk does not acknowledge. Despite these issues, the Post's database shows police shot and killed 13 unarmed black men in 2019, not eight.

What the data show

The Post's database documents fatal police shootings that have happened since Jan. 1, 2015. The Post said its team relies "primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports" in addition to its own reporting.

This data does not include "deaths of people in police custody, fatal shootings by off-duty officers or non-shooting deaths."

The Post's data show police shot and killed 13 unarmed Black men in 2019, five more people than Kirk claimed. Also, police shot and killed an unarmed Black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, 28, on Oct. 12, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. But the Post's database only covers shootings. It does not include deaths caused by beating, tasering or vehicles. George Floyd's death, for example, who died in police custody after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, would not be included in the Post's dataset.

The Post regularly updates the database as information about cases is released, so it's possible it showed eight unarmed Black male deaths instead of 13 at the time Kirk posted the video. It's also possible the number will continue to rise as more information about deaths in 2019 comes to light.

Mapping Police Violence, a crowdsourced database that includes deaths by vehicle, tasering or beating in addition to shootings, estimates 25 police killings of unarmed Black men in 2019.

Fact check: Columbus, Ohio, does not have highest rate of African American deaths by police

The 2019 deaths include 28-year-old Michael Dean, who police killed in Texas on Dec. 2, 31-year-old Christopher Whitfield, who police killed in Louisiana on Oct. 14, 54-year-old Melvin Watkins, who police killed in Louisiana on Sept. 14 and 33-year-old Channara Tom Pheap, who police killed on Aug. 26 in Tennessee.

The Post's analysis found police have killed around the same number of people each year - about 1,000 - since it began collecting the data. The data for 2020 appear on par with previous years.

Incomplete data

Many academics using data on the number of police killings acknowledge a lack of data, resulting in underreporting.

Two systems collect information on police shootings: The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which collects data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics System, which compiles death certificate data.

According to research by criminologists published in the National Library of Medicine, NVSS underestimates police homicides because it "misclassifies cases as homicides, rather than justifiable homicides committed by police officers, because certifiers fail to mention police involvement."

The researchers found the FBI's system, which does not gather data from all law enforcement agencies, similarly "misses cases because some jurisdictions fail to file reports or omit justifiable homicides committed by police officers."

PBS reported in August on how the lack of sound information surrounding police shootings is so widespread that "a decade ago, the Department of Justice stopped collecting data on deaths tied to police violence because the numbers were unreliable ... Reporting these cases was voluntary, and there were virtually no incentives for police departments to submit this information to the federal government."

Examples of questionable reporting of the causes of police shootings are many.

When police shot 39-year-old Tommy Smith outside his mother's house in Illinois, authorities declared his death a "suicide by cop" despite lacking evidence. "Suicide by cop" is a vague term the Guardian - a publication that also created its own police fatality database - reported contradicts the National Association of Medical Examiners' guidelines for determining cause of death.

The Guardian reported in 2015 the police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford, all of whom were unarmed when they died, were "missing from the federal government's official record of homicides by officers because most departments refuse to submit data."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, a unit within the Department of Justice, released in 2016 a redesigned study using reports from media outlets, surveys of law enforcement agencies, medical examiners' and coroners' offices to produce an improved estimate of arrest-related deaths between June 1, 2015, and March 31, 2016.

The bureau found 1,348 potential arrest-related deaths during that time frame. Of those, nearly two-thirds were homicides, one-fifth were suicides and a one-tenth were accidents. The revised estimate is on par with the Post and the Guardian's estimates.

Our ruling: False

The Post's database only counts police shootings, not other forms of police interaction that resulted in fatalities, so Kirk incorrectly attributed the number of all police killings in 2019 to a database that only records deaths by shooting.

But even though data on fatalities at the hands of police is underreported and the actual number is likely higher, the Washington Post's database has reported 13 instances of police shooting and killing unarmed Black men (plus one instance of police shooting and killing an unarmed Black woman) in 2019. That is five more deaths of unarmed Black men than Kirk's claim in his Facebook video. This claim is, therefore, rated FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

Our fact-check sources:

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: How many unarmed Black men did police kill in 2019?


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