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Factcheck: Grim statistics on race and police killings

Dispute over deaths at hands of police
Dispute over deaths at hands of police

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Dispute over deaths at hands of police 03:05

Story highlights

  • A ProPublica analysis of police shootings shows that young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed than young white men
  • But Fox News host Bill O'Reilly is citing stats showing that more whites were killed by police than blacks in 2012
  • The differing statistics underscore analysts' complaint that the United States poorly tracks police shootings
Syndicated columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote this week that young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men. Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly had a much different take on his show Monday night, offering that more whites are killed by police than blacks.
"In 2012, 123 African-Americans were shot dead by police. There are currently more than 43 million blacks living in the U.S.A.," O'Reilly said on his program. "Same year, 326 whites were killed by police bullets. Those are the latest stats available."
Two dramatically different statistics -- and they could both be right.
That reality, in part a result of weak local reporting and national data gathering efforts on police homicides, has long frustrated researchers and analysts who say they need to know more about those shootings.
Here's how the two pundits came to such dramatically different conclusions:
Kristof was citing an analysis by ProPublica, which combed through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Report.
The site reported: "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."
What's key is that ProPublica narrowed the scope of its analysis to the 15-to-19 age range, and adjusted for population differences to account for the fact that more whites live in the United States than blacks -- both key differences from O'Reilly's approach.
The Fox News host's numbers, meanwhile, came from a fatal injury database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A search in 2012 for deaths caused by "legal intervention" as a result of the use of a firearm -- that is, a police shooting -- yields just the numbers O'Reilly cited Monday night. In the 15-19 age range, the database shows 20 white people killed in 2012 and 14 blacks.
The problem, experts say, is that the United States doesn't collect accurate statistics and verify nearly enough information to show definitive trends in police shootings.
"There isn't a mandatory reporting. It is a self-reporting. Almost on the honor system," Sunny Hostin, a CNN legal analyst, said on CNN's "The Situation Room" on Tuesday.
"Although the FBI does have some statistics, most people know that those statistics can't even be counted upon, because they are self-reported," Hostin said. "So my suggestion has been all along that we need mandatory reporting from our law enforcement agencies around the country and I think that the number of officer shootings involving young black males is actually much higher than is even self-reported. That's something that needs to be part of the conversation."
Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist, recently told USA Today the FBI's database can confirm police have shot and killed people -- but provides few other details.
The numbers are self-reported by individual law enforcement agencies and not all local and state agencies participate. Most shootings are marked as justified homicides, with little follow-up.
''There is no national database for this type of information, and that is so crazy," Alpert said. "We've been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the (police) departments didn't want it. They were concerned with their image and liability. They don't want to bother with it.''