What we don't know about 380 Americans shot and killed by cops this year

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Lorning Cornish shouts after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray while police in riot gear stand guard on May 1, 2015, in Baltimore. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What do these two episodes have in common?

In the central Pennsylvania town of Hummelstown, a 59-year-old man -- driving with an expired inspection sticker and apparently, tests would later show, intoxicated -- is pulled over by the local cops. When he tries to run away, the suspect is Tasered, falls face down in the snow, and is shot in the back and killed by a female officer standing over him. The man was unarmed, and the cop has been charged with criminal homicide.

Meanwhile, 3.000 miles away in Hawthorne, Calif., a frantic woman with her 12-year-old son pulls up to a police officer and says that three armed men are chasing them; within seconds, a man with two revolvers jumps from a second vehicle, quickly fires the shot that kills the woman and draws a bead on the boy just as the officer guns him down.

Few would argue that what happened in Hawthorne was an act of police heroism. And many would agree with the prosecutor in the Hummelstown case, that the fatal shooting by an officer there was not just unjustified but a criminal act. Indeed, the incidents have only one thing in common -- they are two of the whopping 380 cases across America in 2015 -- a year not yet half over -- in which police shot a man or woman to death, according to an eye-opening report today in the Washington Post.

And here's something else astonishing: The Post article -- while comprehensive and well-reported -- doesn't capture the full-extent of police-involved killings -- because it doesn't list victims who died from other means such as Tasers or blunt objects like nightsticks. Activists who've been tracking the issue since last August's killing of Mike Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson believe that roughly 470 Americans have been in some manner killed by cops in 2015 -- a pace that would top 1,000 by year's end.

It's been mentioned here before, but let's state this again: No one else does this, at least not in the so-called industrialized world. One activist group's tally of fatal police-involved shootings in England and Wales find that there have been 55 -- since 1990! In Germany, police fired a total of just 85 bullets (killing 6) in one year, 2011.

Police violence is an issue that's divided America into two camps, one chanting #BlackLivesMatter and another responding #BlueLivesMatter, and yet there's something here that both sides should agree on before the nation will make any progress. Both the public and our public officials tasked with making the key policy decisions are flying blind here. What we don't know about police-involved killings in America is a national disgrace.

This is from the Post article:

As a start, criminologists say the federal government should systematically analyze police shootings. Currently, the FBI struggles to gather the most basic data. Reporting is voluntary, and since 2011, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police agencies have reported fatal shootings by their officers to the FBI. As a result, FBI records over the past decade show only about 400 police shootings a year — an average of 1.1 deaths per day. According to The Post’s analysis, the daily death toll so far for 2015 is close to 2.6.

Why does it matter? As noted up top, some police killings are clear-cut cases of officers defending the public and themselves, while others -- especially as more incidents are captured on cellphone video -- clearly merit criminal prosecution. But the vast majority fall into a murky area -- and from a practical point of view the question of where the killing shoot is legally "justified" isn't really the point.

Are many of these deaths preventable? The answer would seem to be 'yes.'

The Post's in-depth reporting on these cases from 2015 found that about half the shootings involved cases of apparent mental illness or unrest, when family members, friends or neighbors called police "because someone  was suicidal, behaving erratically or threatening violence." In many of these cases, the caller wanted police to help the individual, certainly not to kill him or her. The article noted that a number of incidents also came at the end of chases, raising questions about how police handle pursuit. The victims of these police chases included many of the 20 percent who turned out to be unarmed.

There's a certain naivety to those who believe this problem can be solved just with body cams and "better training." It's hard to disagree that the current controversy has deep roots in the culture of policing -- in ingrained attitudes that include racism. Of the 380 shooting victims looked at by the Post, the death rate for blacks was three times higher than whites. or than for other minorities.

But clearly, better policies, procedures and, yes, training could help officers who deal with the mentally ill -- admittedly a difficult, thankless task -- do their job in ways that are less likely to spiral into violence. America could save hundreds of lives every year just by figuring out how to get people to rehab instead of the morgue.

But we can't fix the problem unless we know what we're talking about. It's a great act of journalism that the Washington Post compiled this information, but it's a national disgrace that the FBI and other agencies that help shape our policies on crime did not. You'd almost think that the government and the local cops didn't want us to have this data in the first place.

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