The claim: On April 18, there had only been three days in 2021 where police did not kill someone
In the wake of high-profile fatal shootings at the hands of law enforcement in areas such as Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, some users have taken to social media to highlight the number of police-related shootings in the first quarter of 2021.
The deaths of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant and 13-year-old Adam Toledo have sparked protests and calls for systemic changes in policing and criminal justice. One viral post presents statistics on the matter.
“There have only been 3 days in 2021 where police did not kill someone,” reads an April 20 Instagram post with over 118,000 likes. Below the text is a graphic of fatal police contacts that purportedly occurred from January to April.
The visual includes calendars showing days from 2021 with one, two, three or more fatal police contacts, which are marked with yellow, orange and red, respectively. Days highlighted in grey—Jan. 16, Jan. 23 and March 2— indicate zero police killings.
Sustainable fashion brand CHNGE shared the claim to its 2.4 million followers and cited Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit organization that tracks police violence across the country. The database was last updated on April 18 before it was shared to social media.
On April 19, nonprofit organization Campaign Zero shared the same graphic from Mapping Police Violence in a post with over 9,000 likes.
USA TODAY reached out to CHNGE and Campaign Zero for additional comment.
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We looked into the data and found the statistic to be accurate based on Mapping Police Violence’s database.
Mapping Police Violence’s data collection method
An absence of transparent and comprehensive data on police killings has prompted media and nonprofit organizations to create independent databases, which use different methods.
That makes it difficult to assess claims surrounding statistics on fatal police contacts, as we previously pointed out when debunking a claim about which cities have the most such shootings.
Mapping Police Violence’s data, referenced in the claims, is obtained from “official police use of force data collection programs in states like California, Texas and Virginia, combined with nationwide data from the Fatal Encounters database,” according to its website.
Fatal Encounters’ website says it attempts “to document all deaths that happen when police are present or that are caused by police: on-duty, off-duty, criminal, line-of-duty, local, federal, intentional, accidental–all of them.”
Mapping Police Violence defines fatal police contacts as cases “where a person dies as a result of being shot, beaten, restrained, intentionally hit by a police vehicle, pepper sprayed, tasered, or otherwise harmed by police officers, whether on-duty or off-duty.” So it includes all manner of deaths, not just shootings.
The group says social media, obituaries, criminal records databases, police reports and other sources are used to identify the race of about 90% of the people shot.
Those fatal police encounters are a “very broad definition” and include deaths such as off-duty police killings or deaths in custody where the cause is unclear, said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska.
While the posts reference Mapping Police Violence, there are additional existing datasets that track fatal police encounters.
A Washington Post database of police-related deaths focuses more narrowly on shootings by on-duty officers. It relies “primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports,” in addition to The Post’s own reporting. Its data also includes race, age, sex and information about weapons involved.
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Nix said he recommends using The Post database because it only deals with on-duty shootings where the officer was using deadly force and “acting in their capacity as a law enforcement officer.” That’s more in line with what people typically think of as a police-related death.
However, Nix noted that narrow focus can have a downside as well. For example, the death of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than 9 minutes, is not included in the Post’s database.
What the data shows
The Post’s data shows seven days where no fatal police shootings took place from January 1 to April 18. They were: Jan. 23, Jan. 28, Feb. 17, March 2, March 22, March 27 and April 4.
Meanwhile, Mapping Police Violence identified zero fatal police contacts on Jan. 16, Jan. 23 and March 2.
Mapping Police Violence documents one incident on Jan. 28; four incidents on Feb. 17; two on March 22; one on March 27 and one on April 4; these officer-involved deaths are not included in The Post database.
The founder and executive director of Fatal Encounters, D. Brian Burghart, told USA TODAY via email he believes those incidents documented by Mapping Police Violence fit The Post’s criteria for inclusion in its database, but that omissions are found every year in data from all organizations that track the numbers.
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Burghart said based on the criteria Mapping Police Violence uses, “three days without a person being directly killed by a law enforcement officer is accurate.” When factoring in all types of deaths involving police officers, he said there has been a police-related death every day in 2021, according to Fatal Encounters’ dataset.
Circumstances to consider when looking at statistics
While the data presented in the claims is accurate, experts note there are certain factors to keep in mind when looking at the data such as state law standards and police department policies, which govern when a police officer is allowed to use deadly force.
“Officers legally are given the authority to use deadly force to defend themselves or others from an imminent threat,” Nix said. “When we dig into this data, what we see—most of the time—is that the person was posing some type of deadly threat.”
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Of course, there is also debate surrounding when an officer is legally justified in using deadly force. The American Bar Association notes each case “brings its own facts and other circumstances for law enforcement officials, judges and juries to consider.”
Our rating: True
The claim that as of April 18 there had only been three days in 2021 where police did not kill someone is TRUE, based on our research. A review of Mapping Police Violence’s data, which is accurately cited in the claims, shows the group documented three days from Jan. 1 to April 18 where police did not kill someone (Jan. 16, Jan. 23 and March 2). This particular dataset can include off-duty police killings or situations where the cause of death is unclear. Other organizations tracking police-related deaths use different methodologies and generate different tallies.
Our fact-check sources:
- Mapping Police Violence, accessed April 22, About the Data
- The Washington Post, April 20, Fatal Force database
- Github.com Washington Post, accessed April 22, data-police-shootings
- Justin Nix, April 22, phone interview
- D. Brian Burghart, April 23, email correspondence
- AZFamily, Jan. 15, YCSO Armed suspect shot and killed after 2-hour standoff near Prescott Valley
- Gun Violence Archive, Jan. 28, Indiana Wabash 0-2
- Click 2 Houston, Feb. 18, Suspect killed in officer-involved shooting in north Houston, police say
- Bogalusa Daily News, Feb. 18, State Police investigating officer-involved fatal shooting in parish
- Daily Press, Feb. 17, Man shot and killed during gun battle with police in Hesperia after vehicle chase
- WBTV 3, Feb. 17, One man dead, another arrested after shots fired at Rowan deputies following chase
- WVTM, March 23, Man shot, killed by Cleburne County deputy, Oxford police investigating
- The Prescott Times, March 23, Armed and dangerous fugitive killed after suspect opens fire on Yavapai County Deputies
- Sun Coast News, March 28, UPDATE: Domestic violence incident results in deputy-involved shooting
- WBRC, April 5, Officer-involved shooting in Birmingham, investigators say officers were confronted with firearm
- Vox, July 6, 2016, When is it legal for a cop to kill you?
- American Bar Association, Nov. 2018, Legal Fact Check: What is the legal standard for deadly force in a shooting by police
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