So Basically Everyone Killed By a Cop Is A Criminal, According to the FBI

FBI data classifies all victims of justified homicides by police as “felons”—why?

"Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son": Louis Head, stepfather of Michael Brown, holds a sign in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.Huy Mach/St. Louis-Post Dispatch/AP

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One consensus that’s emerged in the month since a police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: We have no way of telling exactly how often these types incidents occur on a national scale. The FBI’s database of justifiable homicides—in which some local law enforcement agencies voluntarily report how many alleged criminals died at the hands of police in the line of duty—has come under particular scrutiny for giving a very limited view of the use of lethal force by law enforcement across the country.

But while many reports (from USA Today, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and others) have rightly focused on the gaps in the FBI data, there’s a bigger question we seem to be glossing over: Would Brown’s death show up in that data to begin with?

A justifiable homicide, according to the FBI, is defined in two ways:

  • The killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty.
  • The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.

That raises the question: What is a felon? “A felon in this case is someone who is committing a felony criminal offense at the time of the justifiable homicide,” according to a statement provided by the bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting staff. That definition differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony.

Felonies are usually understood as serious criminal offenses such as murder and assault. But what does the FBI count as a felony, then? “We do not have a standard definition for a felony criminal offense as this varies from law enforcement jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” the UCR staff states.

Let’s say a cop shoots and kills a suspect and later found to be justified in doing so because he felt his life was in danger. And let’s say that the local law enforcement agency later reports the death as a justifiable homicide to the FBI. Under the FBI’s definition, the victim is then counted as a felon killed by a peace officer in the line of duty, regardless of whether that suspect was in fact a criminal, or may have later been found innocent.

These loose definitions raise some important questions in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Was Brown committing a felony when Officer Darren Wilson shot him, for instance? Ferguson authorities have claimed that Brown was a robbery suspect and that he assaulted Wilson prior to the shooting. But as is often the case with lethal use-of-force cases, the exact circumstances of Brown’s death remain in dispute. So long as the police have the final say, we’ll be stuck with unsatisfactory data that fails to give us the big picture on what happens when encounters with the law turn deadly.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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