WASHINGTON— The latest figures (2013) from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation suggest violent crime in the United States has fallen to its lowest level in years. Many law enforcement agencies are taking credit for the decline. But while violent crime is down, deadly police encounters - known as justifiable homicides - are rising.
The FBI says violent crimes like murder, rape, assault and robbery dropped more than four percent in 2013. But during that same period, however, officers shot and killed more than 400 civilians in incidents known as justifiable homicides.
Bill Lewis, assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles Division, says increased drug and gang activity has led to more deadly encounters with police.
"There are more than 30,000 known gangs in the U.S., including prison and motorcycle gangs. And more than a million gang members. Further, street gangs are responsible for approximately 48 percent of violent crime in their neighborhoods that they control," said Lewis.
According to official FBI reporting, there were nearly 500 police killings of felony suspects each year during a seven year period ending in 2013.
But that number comes from only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, because reporting police killings to Washington is voluntary.
Some analysts claim the report undercounts fatal police encounters with civilians, and the actual number could be as high as 1,000.
National Urban League President Marc Morial said lowering that number may mean changing the way the police do their job.
"So the changes we seek obviously are a shift away from what I would call a broken windows [increased police action for small crimes] or stop-and-frisk approach to policing, to more of a community policing model, which focuses on violent crime but also which builds relationships between police and the communities that they serve," said Morial.
The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not an insolated event. African Americans make up a large majority of people killed by police. Public policy expert Elsie Scott said the core of the problem is the way black men and other minorities are perceived by many police officers.
"There are many great police officers out there. I think many of the police officers who work directly in high crime communities often see nothing but some of the negative elements and so their perceptions of African-American young men, their perception of Latino young men often may get tainted by the job that they are doing," said Scott.
Madye Henson, who has trained thousands of police officers, said law enforcement agencies need to examine ways of reducing deadly force.
"I think that what you have seen in some of those communities that have seen a decrease in those police killings in that process is a different level of engagement, with those that police community there is a different level of engagement with the community," said Henson.
Henson said furthering policing reforms should increase trust between officers and civilians while reducing the frequency with which police use deadly force.