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In the wake of the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn was interviewed for nearly an hour on Wisconsin Public Radio about the incident and its implications.
At one point during the Aug. 20, 2014 interview, Flynn told host Kathleen Dunn "there are many reasons why (police) uses of force are dramatically down, and the main one is training."
Then, alluding back to Ferguson, the chief added:
"It's an extraordinarily rare event. But the fact is, (in) 2012, there were 12,197,000 arrests in the United States, OK? And there were 410 uses of deadly force. Now that is, I think, three-thousands of a percent. So, it’s still an extraordinarily rare event."
In the comparison Flynn uses, there is one police killing in 0.00003 percent of all arrests -- an even tinier fraction than he suggested. But expressed another way, the 410 is an average of more than one police killing per day.
So, what about the two figures themselves: Are they accurate and do they account for all of the people who are killed by police?
Around the country, attention to the use of deadly force by police was heightened after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot to death on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.
In Milwaukee, residents held rallies to raise questions about the Brown case and about the April 2014 death of Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old who was shot multiple times by a police officer during a struggle in Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee.
(In Milwaukee, there was one police killing of a citizen in 2012, four in 2013 and two through late August of 2014, the Police Department told us.)
PolitiFact National rated Half True a claim by conservative talk show host Michael Medved that "more whites than blacks are victims of deadly police shootings." The claim ignored the fact that there are more than five times more whites than blacks in America.
And our colleagues rated as False a statement that an unarmed black person is shot by a police officer every 28 hours. The report that had been cited by CNN pundit Marc Lamont Hill looked at all deaths, not just those of unarmed individuals. And it rolled in some deaths that did not involve police officers.
Flynn, who headed the police departments in Arlington, Va., and Springfield, Mass., before becoming Milwaukee’s chief in 2008, is known nationally for his use of data.
When we asked for evidence for Flynn’s claim, a Milwaukee police spokesman cited two FBI reports. Both are from 2012, the most recent full-year statistics available.
There were 12,196,959 arrests across the country in 2012, which means the figure Flynn used -- 12,197,000 -- was rounded up only slightly.
The highest numbers of those arrests were for drug abuse violations, driving under the influence and larceny-theft.
There were also 410 cases of justifiable homicide in 2012, according to the FBI, which defines justifiable homicide as the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty. For example: A police officer responding to a bank robbery alarm who shot a suspect after the suspect fired at the officer.
But that doesn’t taken into account all police killings of citizens.
FiveThirtyEight.com, a news website devoted to data analysis, recently reported that the 410 is a minimum figure. The numbers are self-reported by local police agencies and not audited, not all police agencies report those figures to the FBI and the number doesn’t include homicides that weren’t ruled justifiable.
The FBI totals are likely an undercount for another reason, criminologists told us. Researchers who examine police killings of citizens within large metropolitan police departments often find that the number of such incidents recorded by the departments are higher than the number of justifiable homicides reported by the FBI.
But the criminologists also noted Flynn’s comparison is one legitimate way to measure the frequency of police killings.
Flynn said that in 2012, there were nearly 12.2 million arrests and "410 uses of deadly force" by police in the United States.
The Milwaukee police chief correctly quotes official FBI statistics on arrests and justifiable homicides by law enforcement officers, although it appears the 410 is an undercount of the number of people killed by police.
We rate his statement Mostly True.
To comment on this item, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website.
Wisconsin Public Radio, Kathleen Dunn interview of Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn (quote at 27:00), Aug. 20, 2014
Email interview, Milwaukee police Lt. Mark Stanmeyer, Aug. 22, 2014
FBI, Uniform Crime Reports on arrests, 2012
FBI, Uniform Crime Reports on justifiable homicide by law enforcement, 2012
USA Today, "Local police involved in 400 killings per year," Aug. 15, 2014
Interview, University of South Carolina criminology and criminal justice professor Geoff Alpert, Aug. 24, 2014
Interview, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology and criminal justice professor David Klinger, Aug. 24, 2014
Interview, University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus professor of criminal justice Samuel Walker, Aug. 25, 2014
Homicide Studies research journal, "On the problems and promise of research on lethal police violence -- a research note," December 2011
FiveThirtyEight.com, "Nobody knows how many Americans the police kill each year," Aug. 19, 2014
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