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Why Does The Homicide Report List Killings by Police?

March 16, 2007 |  3:39 pm

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(Bullet holes after a 2005 shootout between LAPD officers and a hostage-taker in which the hostage, a child, was killed.--Gary Friedman/LAT)

Any death of a human being by the hand of another is included in The Homicide Report.

This is the Los Angeles County coroner's definition of homicide. The definition wraps in both criminal homicides and justifiable homicides by police, as well as justifiable homicides by civilians acting in self- defense.

The coroner's investigation, which is separate from a police investigation, is what determines how the case is categorized. Coroner's investigators take intent, as well as other factors, into account. To the coroner, the word "homicide" is a medical examiner's term of art, not a legal concept, said coroner's spokesman Craig Harvey. "If the D.A. chooses to file charges, or not file charges, it's of no concern to the coroner," he said.

That's why vehicular homicide and manslaughter cases often don't qualify. The exception is cases in which a driver had a clear intent--in the eyes of the coroner's investigators--to use a car as a waepon to kill another human being. Thus, the victims of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market crash were not labeled homicide victims by the coroner, although the driver was prosecuted. But Joseph Mendoza, who was killed Feb. 14 when a fistfight escalated into an apparently deliberate car-versus-pedestrian assault, was listed by the coroner as a homicide victim.

The same accounting method is used by the Centers for Disease Control for its national mortality reports. The method differs from that used by the FBI, which collects data from law enforcement agencies. The inclusion of justifiable homicides, police killings, and other deaths not listed by law enforcement as homicides, means that the Centers for Disease Control routinely places homicide numbers at a higher point than the FBI does. In 2004, for example, the CDC reported more than 17,300 homicides; the FBI that same year reported 16,137.

The Homicide Report presents this larger data set. It is not a catalog of first-degree murder cases but rather a measure of lethal conflict between human beings in any form.

That includes cases in which a police officer is menaced with a deadly weapon, and fires back in his or her own defense. The Homicide Report presents such incidents simply as a fatal encounters between human beings. Thus, victims can be instigators and still make the Homicide Report. They need only to be dead to qualify. There is, as Harvey said, "no judgment on it."

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