When the federal government relies on local police departments to voluntarily report on the people they kill, that system will prove unreliable and worthless. This is what the FBI is now discovering. As the Guardian reports, the federal government has no record of the deaths of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Eric Garner and other homicides by police because most law enforcement agencies refuse to supply the data. Last year, only 224 of the 18,000 police departments across the country reported a fatal shooting to the FBI, according to the Guardian.
“We have no way of knowing how many incidents may have been omitted,” said Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI, noting exclusions were inevitable due to the voluntary nature of the program.
Among the findings of a review of so-called “justifiable homicides” by police collected by the FBI, were that no police departments in Florida reported homicides by police officers, though the state maintains its own records. The NYPD submitted data for a single year over the past decade, in 2006. Meanwhile, as the NYPD reported 10 shooting deaths that year, in reality there were 13, and even that police department did not list non-shooting deaths such as Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold.
Further, the FBI merely records basic personal data for those killed, but fails to account for critical information such as whether they were armed. In addition, other high-profile and controversial deaths were entered incorrectly in the FBI database, compromising any efforts to account for demographic trends in the reporting. Still others were recorded in a chaotic, hodgepodge manner—some ignored, others logged with other homicides without noting the police killed them. Since the federal bureau has no category for recording killings by police of people who are not felons, some local departments simply file the unjustified homicides along with the group of civilian murders, manslaughters and other killings.
Bevercreek, Ohio, whose police fatally shot John Crawford, 22, also failed to report the shooting to the FBI. Meanwhile, Cleveland, whose police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, for playing with a toy gun in 2012, and killed a Black couple, Malissa Williams, 30, and Timothy Russell, 43, in a hail of 137 bullets that year, has not reported to the FBI. That city has entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice over its use-of-force policies and practices.
Other deaths unaccounted for by the federal government include that of Oscar Grant, 22, who was shot to death in an Oakland, California subway station, for which the officer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and Rekia Boyd, 22, shot to death in 2012 by an off-duty Chicago cop. However, among those incorrectly recorded by the FBI include Darrien Hunt, who was shot to death while running from police in Saratoga Springs, Utah while holding a replica sword. Hunt was listed as the person who committed the homicide, and a knife or blade was listed as the deadly weapon.
Recently, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a new open source pilot program to count the number of people killed by police around the country, characterized as the most comprehensive government effort to account for deaths by police in the U.S. This came after FBI Director James Comey announced the feds would begin to collect more data on police shootings, though the bureau fell short of making any changes to the current voluntary law enforcement reporting system.
Currently, the Guardian—whose site, The Counted, has recorded over 900 police deaths so far this year– and the Washington Post have done a far better job of tallying deaths caused by encounters with the police. Placing this in its proper context, the FBI only recorded only 444 justifiable homicides for all of 2014.
Last week, Comey said it was “unacceptable” the Guardian and the Washington Post were “becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians.”
“You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,’ which I saw this weekend … The CDC can do the same with the flu,” Comey added. “It’s ridiculous – it’s embarrassing and ridiculous – that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
The FBI has a troubled past, in which it monitored and infiltrated civil rights and Black nationalist groups, orchestrated the assassination and imprisonment of Black leadership, and decimated the Black community through J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program. The government maintained copious records of innocent people it targeted for destruction and defamation, yet today is missing simple records on Black people killed by law enforcement because it depends on reluctant, non-cooperative police departments to report on their own wrongdoing.