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Numbers without authority

by Sabrina Vourvoulias, AL DÍA News Media

"The numbers just aren't there."

Anyone who has written about Latinos killed by police hears that at least once. There are two ways to understand it: 1) that Latinos aren't killed in the numbers Whites and Blacks are, and, 2) that the numbers are hard to find and even harder to rely on.

The first, by the measures we have, is true when you consider raw numbers. But rates of police killings proportional to population size means Latinos are killed at 1.9 times the rate of White, non-Latinos but are nowhere near as likely to be killed as Blacks (2.8 times the rate of White, non-Latinos) nor Native Americans who, given population size, are the most likely of all demographic groups to be killed by law enforcement. 

The second reading — that aggregate statistics about use of lethal force by police officers are hard to come by and oddly inconsistent — is indeed true. The FBI compilation for "Justifiable Homicides" for 2013, for example, puts the total number of lethal police shootings at 461. The CDC, which compiles the number of "Legal interventions" as the underlying cause of death, puts the total for the same year at 531, and 1point21interactive, which uses the crowdsourced database of Fatal Encounters, puts the total of fatal shooting/taser/vehicle and other deaths attributable to police at 898. 

That's a substantial variation, and one that makes it impossible to offer definitive or authoritative numbers about police use of lethal force. In fact, a recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics report asserts that FBI numbers are so undercounted they may leave nearly half of the people killed by police out of the count altogether.

The 1point21interactive number for 2015 so far is 212 (neither the FBI nor CDC have released figures yet, of course), of which 64 of the victims have been White, 50 Black, 26 Hispanic, 6 other (which includes Native American-Alaskan, Pacific Islander, Asian, Mixed race and Middle Eastern). It also has a whopping 66 victims whose ethnicity could not be definitely ascertained. 

That unknown illustrates a problem that all the datasets have, particularly with regard to Latinos, who can be of any race. The CDC issues this caveat with its WONDER datasets: "Studies have shown that persons self-reported as American Indian, Asian, or Hispanic on census and survey records may sometimes be reported as white or non-Hispanic on the death certificate, resulting in an underestimation of deaths and death rates for the American Indian, Asian, and Hispanic groups."

Further, from the CDC:

"Hispanic origin was not reported on the death certificate for some deaths. On the mortality file, missing Hispanic origin information is coded as 'not stated'. There is no corresponding population figure for this group. Therefore, deaths with Hispanic origin not stated are excluded when death rates are calculated by Hispanic origin. ... Data for the 'Not Stated' Hispanic Origin category cannot be combined with any other specified age group or Hispanic Origin categories. Death rates are not calculated specifically for the 'Not Stated' groups because there are no corresponding population denominator data for these groups."

I've included a link to the 1point21interactive visualizations, which allow you to view by year or race or manner of death, but not by whether the victim was armed or unarmed. I've also included AL DÍA News Media's infographics based on the  CDC data from 2013.

From the CDC WONDER dataset for 2013:

CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths by race, 2013

©AL DÍA News Media from CDC statistics, 2015

CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths by race and subset of Hispanic/Latino origins, 2013

©AL DÍA News Media from CDC statistics, 2015

CDC: Total "legal intervention" deaths of those of Hispanic/Latino origins and those of non-Hispanic/non-Latino origins, 2013

©AL DÍA News Media from CDC statistics, 2015