Electronic coding errors, reporting inconsistencies, jurisdictional issues and police noncompliance with standard crime reporting guidelines have caused an untold number of officer-involved fatal shootings of civilians to go unreported or uncounted in Virginia.
The full scope of the underreporting of police killings in Virginia cannot be quantified, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch has identified more than two dozen cases that have gone uncounted since 2000.
Most of the unreported cases fall under an FBI crime reporting category of police “justifiable homicides,” which local law enforcement agencies are required to report each year to Virginia State Police. But the reporting is voluntary, and there is no penalty for noncompliance.
Other cases have gone uncounted apparently because the officers’ actions could not be justified, and there is no state or federal mechanism to record or track those types of killings.
Several of the discrepancies came to light after The Times-Dispatch published a story Jan. 25 that centered on justifiable police homicides reported by agencies across Virginia, along with a breakdown by race of the officers and the people killed. The incidents were categorized as suspects being killed while attacking police officers or civilians, resisting arrest, committing crimes or fleeing crime scenes.
The inexact reporting of police killings in Virginia mirrors a similar problem nationally that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed last month, after several highly publicized killings of blacks by white officers prompted questions about the number of officer-involved fatal shootings in the U.S.
Holder, who called the lack of information about police killings “unacceptable,” said state and local agencies should be legally required to report all shootings to the FBI.
“It is appalling that no one really knows how many people are shot and killed by police every year in Virginia,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. “When lives are lost, we should know what happened and why. It is the responsibility of state lawmakers and the governor to acquire this data (and related) information and make it available to the public.”
Lynch said federal reporting requirements are not the answer.
“The federal government needs to get its own house in order before it starts demanding information from local law enforcement,” he said. “There are dozens of federal police agencies, and we do not have comprehensive information from those agencies about shootings and killings. President (Barack) Obama and Attorney General Holder should work on that.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said that while efforts at the federal level to improve record keeping and reporting of police killings are a step in the right direction, “we should also explore any state-level strategies that can give us a clearer understanding of what’s happening in Virginia.”
“Law enforcement has used data for years to help keep our communities safe, but there is a growing national consensus that better data is needed in certain areas, like officer-involved deaths and assaults on law enforcement, where the accuracy and consistency of reporting and record keeping does not match the seriousness of the situation,” Herring said.
It appears most police agencies in Virginia try to comply with voluntary federal and state reporting requirements that direct them to electronically transmit data on “justifiable homicides” involving their officers to state police, which collects all local crime data and forwards it to the FBI.
But the results have been mixed. And at least one police agency, Fairfax County police, has unilaterally stopped providing the data, saying they are not legally required to do so.
The agency said such homicides are not considered to be an “actual offense” and therefore are not required to be included in an agency’s crime-reporting numbers. None of the 13 justifiable homicides the department said involved its officers from 2007 through 2013 was reported to the state. Fairfax refused to provide numbers before 2007.
Most of the reporting discrepancies appear to involve clerical-type mistakes or confusion over who should report the killing, particularly if state police were asked to investigate the homicide as an independent third party.
State police acknowledged that a “clerical coding oversight” resulted in at least seven officer-involved killings that involved state troopers or officers from local jurisdictions that were investigated by state police to go unreported from 2009 to 2013, although the agency said it is working to remedy the problem.
Those uncounted cases, all of which were ruled justifiable, are:
• The March 8, 2009, fatal shooting by a state trooper of a white suspect inside Shenandoah National Park in Warren County.
• The Jan. 1, 2010, fatal shooting by a state trooper of a white suspect in Albemarle County.
• The Dec. 8, 2011, fatal shooting by a state trooper of a white suspect in Caroline County.
• The Dec. 20, 2011, fatal shooting by a state trooper of a white suspect in Rockbridge County.
• The Nov. 2, 2012, fatal shooting of a white suspect by Stafford County deputies at the Stafford-Fauquier county line.
• The June 8, 2013, fatal shooting of a white suspect by an Albemarle police officer in Albemarle.
• The Oct. 26, 2013, fatal shooting of a white suspect by officers from multiple police agencies in Giles County.
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the department discovered the reporting errors while researching a Freedom of Information Act request in November from The Wall Street Journal, which later published a story on the hundreds of police killings that go uncounted nationally.
Geller provided this account of how the reporting errors occurred:
When state police were asked to investigate an officer-involved shooting fatality involving another department, a report was generated and initially coded as an “officer involved shooting.” There is no presumption at that point that the shooting is justified; that determination is left to the local commonwealth’s attorney or a grand jury.
In killings that were ruled to be justified, the state police agent who investigated the case did not go back into the report and change the coding from “officer involved shooting” to “justifiable homicide” and provide a copy to a secretary for entry into the state police database.
Geller said state police have not looked into cases for possible reporting errors before 2009 because “we are concentrating on correcting the matter for future reporting.” Without conducting research, Geller said she could not say for sure whether there are other uncounted cases before 2009.
In another case, a high-profile fatal shooting by state police of a white triple-murder suspect in Colonial Heights in 2004 appears to have gone unreported after it was investigated by the agency and the Colonial Heights commonwealth’s attorney’s office. The case was ruled to be a justifiable homicide, but it did not appear on a list of such killings that the state police provided to The Times-Dispatch in response to a 2011 FOIA request.
Another case that failed to make the list was the June 2008 fatal shooting of a white suspect by four Stafford County deputies. Stafford sheriff’s spokesman Bill Kennedy said the department, after an investigation that cleared the officers, reported the killing as a justifiable homicide to state police. “The information I have is that it was picked up by the Virginia State Police in January 2009,” he said.
Jurisdictional issues have added to the confusion.
Representatives for several police agencies said they assumed state police would report the fatal shootings in their localities in cases where the state was asked to conduct the investigations. But when asked if the localities share any responsibility in reporting the deaths, Geller said, “Every law enforcement agency in the commonwealth shares the responsibility to make sure data is reported as accurately and completely as possible.”
Other killings have slipped through the cracks because they were not determined to be justified.
In a Feb. 9, 2012, fatal shooting of a white Sunday school teacher in a church parking lot in the town of Culpeper, a jury convicted a Culpeper officer implicated in her death of voluntary manslaughter. The killing was recorded as a standard homicide for crime-reporting purposes but went uncounted as a police killing because no reporting mechanism exists for recording unjustified police-involved homicides.
That is likely what happened in two Richmond cases in which city police officers were charged with manslaughter in the killings of African-American residents in 2002 and 2004. The officer in the first case was acquitted after two mistrials, and the officer in the second case was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after one mistrial.
“We can find nothing in our files that indicate a disposition of those cases,” said Richmond police spokesman Gene Lepley.
Two other African-Americans were fatally shot by Richmond police in disputed cases in 1995 and 2001, but grand juries that investigated those killings refused to indict the officers. Those cases predated the department’s electronic reporting system, Lepley said.
“We checked our files,” he said, “and we find no information about what may or may not have been transmitted to the Virginia State Police.”
Lepley said the department’s recollection is that before 2005, most officer-involved fatal shootings were investigated by state police.
“We will work with the Virginia State Police to reconcile any discrepancies that may exist,” he said of the four cases, none of which was recorded by state police.
In a fifth Richmond case that went unreported, an African-American man was fatally shot by a city officer in 2006. The commonwealth’s attorney cleared the officer of any criminal wrongdoing after an investigation by Richmond police and the city prosecutor’s office. Lepley said that after the investigation was concluded, the incident that was initially classified as a “death investigation” was not reclassified as a “justifiable homicide.”
Reporting errors have been made by other local departments as well.
The July 2011 fatal shooting by Henrico County police of a black suspect who fired on officers was not reported by the agency as a justifiable killing because an editing error prevented the uploading of the data to state police, a spokesman said.
And in Chesterfield County, the May 2006 fatal shooting by county police of a black suspect who fatally shot one officer and wounded another was not reported because investigators forgot to reclassify the killing after it went from a “death investigation” to a “justifiable homicide,” a spokeswoman said.
Henrico and Chesterfield said they have resubmitted the data to correct the oversights.
The 17 previously unreported police killings would raise the state’s total since 1990 to 147 deaths, although it is very likely that other cases have gone unreported. With the additional numbers, 80 of those killed have been white, or 54.42 percent, and 66 have been black, or 44.89 percent. One was identified as Asian.
The 13 killings that Fairfax police said involved its officers from 2007 to 2013 would raise the state’s total death count to 160, but Fairfax refused to provide any details, including a breakdown by race of the officers and people killed.
Cato’s Lynch said greater transparency of police killings brings several benefits.
“Most important, it can save lives by curbing the use of deadly force,” he said. “By identifying and promptly removing problem officers, public safety will be enhanced and lives will doubtless be saved. It will also bring about more justice to victims.
“Whether the killings are accidental or criminal, the families of the victims deserve truth and not just compensation.”