Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Why won’t the U.S. report stats on police use of deadly force?

Alba Morales is a researcher in the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch

Over the past month, police officers in the United States have killed three unarmed black men in circumstances that raise serious human rights concerns. On July 17,  Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died after a New York Police Department officer placed him in a choke hold—a tactic that the NYPD banned in 1993—while trying to arrest him for selling black market cigarettes on a Staten Island street. The New York Medical Examiner has ruled his death a homicide.

On August 5, police fatally shot John Crawford, 22, inside a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Witnesses  say Crawford was holding a toy gun that was available for purchase in the store, and that police opened fire when he did not comply with an order to put it down.

Story continues below advertisement

Then, on August 9, police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old due to start college two days later. Police allege that Brown assaulted an officer, but witnesses say he was 35 feet away from the police car when he was shot. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into the shooting as a possible violation of federal civil rights laws.

Communities throughout the US have long voiced concerns about the use of excessive force by police, saying incidents like these disproportionately involve black men. And indeed, Garner, Crawford, and Brown join an appallingly long list of unarmed black men killed by police in the US in recent years. Some — like Amadou DialloSean Bell, and Oscar Grant — have made national headlines and generated public protests. In Ferguson, the at-times violent unrest has continued for days. Police have used teargas and rubber bullets against protesters, and in some instances, told journalists to leave the scene.

But it's almost impossible to get a firm handle on the full extent of the problem. As journalists and others have documented time and time again, there are no reliable nationwide figures on police use of deadly force. A federal law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, requires the Attorney General to collect and publish data on the use of force by police and issue an annual summary.  A search of the Justice Department website yielded no indication that such a summary has ever been published.

Without this data, one can't know whether, as some claim, police abuse can be traced to a few "badapple" officers, or is an endemic problem; and how to best go about addressing it. Implementation of the 1994 law would not solve the problem, but it would be an important step in taking measure of exactly how big it is. Meanwhile, the headlines, the funerals, and the protests continue, documenting yet another life lost.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at