If you’re looking for the number of citizens killed by police officers, don’t ask the government. It just doesn’t know. The DOJ is nominally in charge of compiling this information, but it has not made anything resembling an honest effort to do so.
To begin with, it has mostly ignored the federal law ordering the compilation of stats on excessive force by law enforcement officers. And it has ignored this for the last 20 years. To make things worse, it has turned over the duty of collecting data on police-involved shootings to the FBI, which has even less interest in ensuring the comprehensiveness of its “collection.”
“Collection” has smart quotes nailed to it because the FBI made this a purely voluntary collection. Law enforcement agencies are invited to send in in-custody death data — which is then verified by no one. The only thing agencies have to gain from self-reporting deaths at the hands of its officers are transparency, accountability and potentially better relationships with the people they serve. Those “gains” rarely align with law enforcement interests.
Available data is limited even further by only including citizens who were shot during the commission of a felony. Slimming it down even more is its limitation to “justifiable homicides.” Everything else is simply ignored.
So, it’s left to the public sector to compile this data. One of the most comprehensive databases of police-involved killings is being compiled by The Guardian with the assistance of forerunners in the (unofficial) field like Fatal Encounters and Killed By Police. Other databases are being crowd-sourced or compiled by hand by truly devoted individuals. But the government has shown no interest in compiling this information as a public service.
To that end, two senators (Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer) have introduced legislation calling for the creation and maintenance of a mandatory police-related killings database.
Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey proposed legislation that would demand all states submit reports to the US Department of Justice that they said would bring “transparency and accountability to law enforcement agencies nationwide”.
“Too many members of the public and police officers are being killed, and we don’t have reliable statistics to track these tragic incidents,” Boxer said in a statement. “This bill will ensure that we know the full extent of the problem so we can save lives on all sides.”
Note the bone being thrown to law enforcement agencies, who are only too happy to compile statistics that show how “dangerous” their work is. Yes, a bill prompted by a Washington Post article on police-involved killings is preemptively calming the nerves of those who may potentially be forced to hand over information on deaths at the hands of their officers.
All well and good, but we’ve already put two agencies in charge of collecting this data and neither have made more than a minimal effort to do so. Making it mandatory is a huge leap forward, but pushing resistant agencies into coughing up unflattering data will take more than a well-intentioned piece of legislation. It needs to stop obliging those who have withheld this data over the years and instead provide for serious consequences if law enforcement agencies fail to meet the requirements of the law.
If previous efforts along these same lines are any indication, simply demanding agencies comply doesn’t seem to have resulted in increased compliance.
In December, Congress reauthorized an act requiring that states report to the Justice Department instances where civilians are killed by police.
“Non-fatal shooting or use of force data is not captured” under the existing legislation, the release said.
So, six months after that “reauthorization” and there’s been no appreciable change in reporting. At this point, anyone but the government is doing a better job capturing this data. Leading the charge from within may eventually force needed change, but a couple of decades of minimal reporting says otherwise.