Cops – Killing and Being Killed

April 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

This story from Kos has been quickly circling through the left portion of the Internet.

Let’s assume that the numbers are accurate.*

Don't bother adjusting for population differences, or poverty, or mental illness, or anything else. The sheer fact that American police kill TWICE as many people per month as police have killed in the modern history of the United Kingdom is sick, preposterous, and alarming.

The author is right. Although the US has a much larger population, and it has more police officers . . .

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

. . .but even adjusting for that, the US killings by cops dwarf the UK figure**.

Adjusting for the number of cops, US cops killed 8 times as many people in a single year as UK cops did in 115 years. But before we conclude that US law enforcement is “sick and preposterous” and dominated by homicidal racists, we might look at the other side – the number of cops who get killed. The entire UK police force since 1900 has had 249 deaths in the line of duty. The US tally eclipses that in a couple of years.

In this century, 25 UK officers died in the line of duty. The figure for the US, 2445, is nearly one hundred times that. Adjusting for numbers of officers, US deaths are still ten times higher.

My guess is that what accounts for much of the UK-US difference is guns. Most British cops don’t carry guns. Last August, I posted (here – it’s gotten over 25,000 page views ) a video of a berserk man wildly swinging a machete in a London street. The police come, armed only with protective shields and truncheons. Eventually, they are able to subdue the man. In the US, it’s almost certain that the police would have shot the man, and it would have been completely justifiable. More cops with guns, more cops killing people. 

But more civilians with guns, more cops getting killed. Since 2000, six UK cops have died from gunshots; in the US, 788.  We have 11 times as many cops, but 130 times as many killed by guns.***

(I did not include the yearly data for the UK since it would not have been visible on the graph. In most years, total cop deaths there ranged between 0 and 2.)

Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of gun manufacturers and their minions in legislatures and in the NRA and elsewhere, US cops work in a gun-rich environment. They feel, probably correctly, that they need to carry guns. If that man in London had been wielding an AR-15 (easily available in many states in the US – in the UK, not so much, not at all in fact), the cops could not have responded as they did. They would have needed guns. There would probably have been some dead civilians, perhaps some dead cops, and almost certainly, a dead berserker. 


* We don’t have a good source of data on how many people the police kill.  (See this WaPo article.) An unofficial source since 2013 is The data on killings by the UK police is also not precise. Politifact (here) says that the Wikipedia numbers that the Kos article is based on are
far low, but we don’t know how low.” PolitiFact does suggest that many of those killings by police were not by London Bobbies. They were by the R.U.C in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” with the I.R.A.

** The denominator for the UK – the number of police officers over the last 115 years  – is my own very rough estimate.

*** The other two leading causes of police deaths are heart attacks and car accidents. Maybe UK cops practice better cardio fitness. But they also spend less time patrolling in cars, and they are less likely to be chasing other cars on the highways.


Pamela Oliver said...

More ratios needed: unarmed civilians shot by police to police shot by civilians. Difficult to get in the US: every single police officer who does on duty is listed on a web page by name and we can add up causes of death. Note that gunshots does not distinguish the significant minority shot by other police (the friendly fire problem) from those shot by criminals, but even if you count all police killed by gunfire, you cannot get a comparable figure for people killed by police in the US, due to failure to keep those records. Whereas being killed by police in the UK is rare enough that every case is recorded.

I'm not disagreeing that the overall rate of violence is higher in the US and that that is part of the rate of killing of both police and civilians, but I'm pretty sure that the ratio of civilians killing police to police killing civilians is quite high in the US and I suspect is susbstantially higher than the comparable ratio in the UK.

Moskos said...

It doesn't change the basic point at all, but one thing to worry about when talking about "the UK" is that crime states and police numbers are usually given just for "England and Wales."

The stats as presented seem to use England and Wales for number of officers and crime and the UK figures for overall population.

Again, the difference is minor (about 10% of the UK lives in Scotland and Northern Ireland), but it's just another trans-national stat problem to watch out for.

Moskos said...

I hate the idea of "unarmed" since and the threat level of a person has very little to do with whether they are "armed." And yet as people think that as long as a person isn't carrying a knife or gun, they couldn't possible be a threat or present a case of justifiable homicide.

Here's just one recent case where a woman was murdered by an "unarmed" man.
Had cops shot this guy before he murdered this woman, imagine the headlines lambasting cops for killing a man "armed" with a shoelace.

Jay Livingston said...

Pam, You're absolutely right about the lack of good stats on killings by cops. I think that culls news stories, and their count is much higher than stats based on official reports. I used their stats in my calculations.
I acknowledge that my numbers are very approximate -- not just killings by cops, but also population estimates and the denominator of police ratios for a 115-year period. Peter Mosksos, who has to do more serious and accurate work on this, notes some of these difficulties. But the differences are so huge that any reasonable adjustment would make little difference in the big picture.
I also agree that policing in the US is a more dangerous occupation than in the UK and probably most other countries as well. I don't know the data, but I'd that US cops are more likely to get killed (and to die in car crashes) than in other countries. They probably also kill more civilians.

Moskos said...

I'd be very curious about cops and car crash data. Because that should be more equal across countries and not directly related to crime, right? And yet somehow I'd bet our cops die more in car crashes, too.

But I have no idea.

As to cops shooting more people, of course it's partly (a large part) because of more crime and more guns. But there is also something about our culture in which people who are a threat are allowed to be killed. Justifiably.

I'm thinking of England in particular, but it applies to Western Europe in general: there is a much higher value on human life as paramount. Like the incident you refer to. And also in things like stand your ground, even in your own home.

Jay Livingston said...

I have no data, of course. But my guess was that US cops have higher rates of crash death just because they do more patrolling in cars, especially more on highways. (Texas has a Highway Patrol. Does Devonshire?) But I'd also guess that you're right that even if you controlled for mileage and roads, we'd still be higher.

Unknown said...

People being killed and Policeman being killed are all associated to the large no of guns in the country. America has the maximum homicide rate and this is all due to the easy available firearms in the country. In other nations Gun laws are more strict and people don't buy it to showoff. There it is also considered as the status symbol that has made it available for even school going kids. Simply join a Firearms safety training classes and get your licensed gun. The attitude should be changed and people should be more responsible towards their nation.