No one knows exactly how many people have been killed by police in Pennsylvania.
There are informal estimates. The Washington Post compiled a database by sifting through news reports, social media posts and other sources. That database says eleven people in Pennsylvania were killed in officer-involved shootings this year, to date. At least a third of those killed were black, while African-Americans make up just 11.7 percent of PA’s population.
Another website, Killedbypolice.net, which scrapes the internet for media reports on civilians gunned down by police offered a differing number. The website counted twelve people killed by police this year.
By their own research parameters, both sites are informal and incomplete: If a police shooting doesn’t make it into an online news story, it won’t show up in either database. If someone is shot by police and doesn’t die, that incident also won’t make it in.
And which of the two numbers is closest to the correct tally? Neither Gov. Tom Wolf nor the Pennsylvania State Police can say for sure.
“There is no centralized source for this type of data,” said PSP press assistant Diane Bates. “The Pennsylvania State Police tracks PSP officer-involved shootings only. Each county (or) municipal agency keeps its own records.”
PA has about 1,100 law enforcement agencies statewide and, like many states, this diffusion makes a true count nearly impossible for the average person to surmise.
So, where does all of that departmental data go? The short answer: “nowhere.”
“That is accurate,” said Wolf’s spokesperson, Jeff Sheridan. “I also looked into this, and as far as I can tell, there is not a statute requiring local police departments to report officer-involved shootings to the state.”
The FBI was supposed to collate this type of data on a national level, but stopped in 2015 after it was revealed that nearly half of the country’s police departments weren’t submitting reports to the FBI. The agency said in December of last year that it was “overhauling” the way it collects this information.
The FBI does track police deaths, like the 12 officers recently gunned down, five of them fatally, in Dallas. A nonprofit, police-run website, called the Officer Down Memorial Page, also received a grant from the Department of Justice to comprehensively catalogue the deaths of police officers, prison guards and K-9 units killed in the line of duty on three continents.
A police dog named Aren was the sole PA law enforcement death this year, according to that site. The German Shepherd was killed during a January altercation after Allegheny Port Authority officers approached two men drinking in public in Wilkinsburg. A scuffle and foot pursuit ensued, and Aren’s K-9 unit responded to a backup call.
One of the men, Bruce Kelley, an African-American with a history of mental illness, was cornered by eight officers. When he refused to drop the knife he was brandishing, officers tased him – to no effect because of a puffy winter coat he was wearing – before releasing the K-9 unit. Kelley stabbed Aren and was subsequently shot at least 10 times by two of the eight officers.
The shooting is still under investigation. Kelley’s family filed a civil suit after it was later revealed that one of the two officers to discharged their weapons had a prior excessive force complaint lodged against him. The incident spurred controversy locally, as did the disparate attention the police dog’s death received – Aren was interned in a flag-draped coffin during a televised ceremony attended by hundreds and made international headlines – compared to Kelley’s burial.
Other than the initial burst of media coverage of the incident, Kelley’s death was officially recorded only by the Port Authority police, a poorly-known, quasi-municipal law enforcement agency. As it stands now, there is no clear way for Pennsylvanians to determine if it was the first, if will be the last or, indeed, the only such incident this year.