Even before the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., announced its decision in the police shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, the lead lawyer for the Brown family challenged the grand jury process.
Attorney Benjamin Crump said the ground rules were skewed in favor of police officer Darren Wilson. All one needed for proof, Crump said, was to look at the statistics.
"The process is completely unfair," Crump said on ABC’s This Week on Nov. 23, 2014. "Ninety-nine percent of the time police officers aren't charged when they kill young people of color."
We called Crump’s office to learn what statistics he relied on to back up his claim about 99 percent of police killings of minority youth. We did not hear back.
We contacted a number of criminologists and other experts in fatalities at the hands of law enforcement officials. All of them told PunditFact that the data don’t exist to prove Crump right or wrong. At the same time, they said his number probably has a measure of accuracy, even if it doesn’t show what he thinks it does in terms of racial bias.
Criminologist Candace McCoy at City University of New York said a simple fact dominates any assessment of Crump’s statement.
"It is very rare for an officer to get indicted at all, no matter what the race of a victim," McCoy said.
How rare is hard to pin down
Ideally, we would know the number of police officers indicted for homicide of a person of color and the total number of people killed by police. We lack accurate figures for both.
The closest we can get to the number of officers charged with homicide comes from Philip Stinson, a criminal justice researcher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Stinson looked at records from 2005 to 2011 and found that in those years, there were a total of 81 cases where at least one officer was charged with murder, nonnegligent manslaughter or negligent manslaughter. It’s important to note that this is a count of cases, not officers. You could imagine that a single death might involve more than one person from a law enforcement agency.
While we could take 81 as a minimum figure, Stinson also told PunditFact he has no information on the race of the person who died.
"I understand his (Crump’s) sentiment, and perhaps that is true historically," Stinson said. "But I don’t think there is any empirical research that would support his summary statistic of 99 percent."
But let’s just say we took the 81 figure and compared it to the total number of deaths at the hands of law enforcement. That would give us some idea of how often an officer is charged when they kill someone.
Unfortunately, we hit another data problem. There are two sources, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and both undercount the number of people killed by police. There are many reasons. Top among them: Some reporting is voluntary, and often the person recording the death doesn’t even know whether an officer was involved. The consensus among experts is that the numbers are too low, but it’s unclear by how much.
With that in mind, we find that the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports show 2,695 justifiable homicides by law enforcement from 2005 to 2011. By definition, those are deaths in which officers followed the rules in using lethal force. If we add to that the 81 deaths to approximate the deaths that were not justified, we get 2,776.
That would mean that officers are charged in about 3 percent of the cases when someone is killed.
We went through a similar process with the CDC’s National Vital Statistics data and wound up with pretty much the same result.
So when Crump said 99 percent of the time police are not charged in the killing of a person of color, he might have been in the ballpark. To flip his approach, he would be saying police are charged 1 percent of the time, while the flawed numbers we have say 3 percent -- regardless of race -- might be closer to the truth.
But criminologist David Klinger at the University of Missouri-St. Louis said Crump’s claim about race is misleading.
"Because it doesn’t include the all-important question, ‘Compared to what?’ " Klinger said. "If cops were routinely indicted in the wake of shooting old white guys, and they were only rarely getting indicted for shooting young people of color, he would be making a valuable point. That, however, is not that case."
Criminologist Lorie Fridell at the University of South Florida echoes the thoughts of her peers.
"Since officers are rarely charged in deadly force situations, that statistic, although not documented, is probably not too far off and would probably hold true for non-minority victims of police deadly force as well," Fridell said.
The question of how often law enforcement officers are charged in the death of a young person of color is distinct from the debate over whether police are more likely to kill minorities than whites. There is a body of evidence that says blacks are more likely to be victims of lethal force than whites, but other analyses find a more complicated set of connections involving race, income, serious crime and policing strategies that make violent encounters between blacks and police more likely.
Crump said 99 percent of the time police officers aren’t charged when they kill a young person of color.
With the caveat that police officers are rarely charged at all, the limited data and the opinions of criminologists back up Crump’s claim.
But there is no hard data for either the number of police officers indicted for homicide of a person of color or for the total number of people killed by police, so we cannot say with certainty whether this happens 99 percent of the time.
We rate the claim Half True.