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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cummings Misuses Police Shooting Stat

Rep. Elijah Cummings got his facts wrong when he said “96 percent” of fatal police shootings were “white officers killing African Americans.” His office told us he misspoke.

The Maryland Democrat was referring to an Aug. 15, 2014, USA Today article that said over a seven-year period ending in 2012 there were “at least 400 police killings each year” and 96 of those yearly fatal shootings — or about 24 percent — involved a white police officer who killed a black person. The paper based its story on the number of justifiable homicides reported to the FBI, but it also noted that the FBI data “has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete.”

Cummings spoke about police shootings on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He said blacks being killed by white police officers is “a national problem.”

Cummings, Jan. 4: One survey said that the 400 or so deaths from police officers with guns, that 96 percent of them were white officers killing African Americans. That’s a problem.

We asked his office about the 96 percent figure and sent a link to the USA Today article that said on average there were 96 incidents of blacks being killed by white police officers each year — nearly two a week. Here is the top of that article:

USA Today, Aug. 15, 2014: Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI. On average, there were 96 such incidents among at least 400 police killings each year that were reported to the FBI by local police.

His office acknowledged that the congressman misspoke, and it posted a correction to a press release about his appearance on “Face the Nation.”

“He was in fact referring to the USA Today article that you referenced below, but he misspoke,” Cummings spokeswoman Jennifer Hoffman said. “He stated inadvertently that African Americans made up 96 percent of victims in a recent case study of at least 400 police killings instead of 96 individuals.”

The FBI collects crime data from local law enforcement agencies, including the number of cases labeled “justifiable homicides” committed by law enforcement officers. The data is flawed, as the article goes on to say, because reporting is voluntary and self-reported. “About 750 agencies contribute to the database, a fraction of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States,” USA Today wrote.

Another source of data on fatal police shootings is the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center maintains a national mortality database based on death certificates as recorded by attending physicians, medical examiners and coroners.

The CDC database contains deaths as a result of “legal intervention,” which is defined as “injuries inflicted by the police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal actions.”

We searched the CDC database for fatal firearm shootings that occurred during legal interventions. The database provides the race of the deceased, but not the race of the law enforcement officer who fired the fatal shot or shots. Still, the CDC information is useful.

From 1999 through 2012, there were 4,819 such shooting deaths. Most of those killed — 69 percent — were white. However, the white population in the U.S. is far greater than the population of blacks, so the data also show blacks were fatally shot at more than twice the rate of whites.

During that 14-year period, there were 3,333 white people shot and killed during legal interventions, 1,270 blacks, 111 Asians and 105 native American Indians. Based on the population during that time, the CDC database shows 1 white person was shot and killed during legal intervention per million. The rate for blacks was 2.3 people for every 1 million.

— Eugene Kiely