While commentators and leaders in the Black community across the country try to figure out how to reduce the instances of Black men being killed by the police, a devastating new report reveals that the nation actually has no idea how often police kill Americans because a huge number of police departments—including some of the largest in the country—don’t report police killings to the FBI.
The analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that more than 550 police killings were missing from the national tally, meaning the richest nation on earth seems unable to account for how often the police gun down Americans in the streets of the U.S.
It is a stunning lack of accountability and oversight on an issue that has enormous consequences for American families. If we can’t even count the number of killings of civilians, it’s unclear how the nation can make any progress anytime soon in cutting down the killings.
With the stunning barrage of police killings of Black males in recent months, this is currently the biggest story in the Black community. But the Wall Street Journal report demonstrates that the country isn’t at all serious about holding police accountable for their actions and their decision-making.
As the White House this week announced the creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing that’s supposed to recommend ways to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust, undoubtedly one way to build public trust is to require police departments to actually report the number of police killings they have every year.
Ironically, the president’s task force is chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. As the Journal report reveals, Ramsey was chief of the Washington, DC, police department while it went an entire decade without reporting police killings beginning in 1998. So the man in charge of recommending ways to increase public trust of the police was head of a force that didn’t report any killings to the federal government for a decade.
A big part of the problem is that local law enforcement agencies aren’t required to participate in the FBI’s uniform crime reporting program, which is supposed to document every homicide in the country. The local departments are supposed to send their numbers to the state, which then forward them to the FBI. But it’s kind of an honor system—the FBI crosses its fingers and hopes agencies will comply. Clearly, the honor system doesn’t work—particularly on an issue where the departments have some incentive to conceal the truth. If your department is gunning down citizens at an alarming clip, why tell the feds about it if you don’t have to?
Some localities turn over just the crime numbers, without any details, making it hard for the FBI to make any sense of them, according to the Journal.
For 35 of the 105 agencies probed by Journal reporters, their justifiable police homicides didn’t appear in the FBI records at all.
“Some agencies said they didn’t view justifiable homicides by law-enforcement officers as events that should be reported,” the Journal story says. “The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia, for example, said it didn’t consider such cases to be an ‘actual offense,’ and thus doesn’t report them to the FBI.”
“When cops are killed, there is a very careful account and there’s a national database,” Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University, told the Journal. “Why not the other side of the ledger?”
In 2012, David Klinger, a former police officer who is a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found that there is wide variation in the number of deaths caused by police reported by the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
When the Journal requested internal records on killings by officers from the nation’s 110 largest police departments, it got back data from 105 of them. In those 105 departments, there were 1,825 police killings between 2007 and 2012, which was 47 percent more than the 1,242 that the FBI had during that period. In other words, the number of killings compiled by a bureau that’s supposed to be the nation’s premier crime-fighting organization was 583 less than that compiled by a newspaper—which got the numbers just by asking for them.
It’s also important to note that, as the Journal pointed out, “nearly all police killings are deemed by the departments or other authorities to be justifiable.”
As the nation is painfully discovering, whenever a police officer pulls out his gun and kills someone, it is considered a “justifiable homicide” by the department.
The Journal investigation found that the large majority of the nation’s roughly 18,000 law-enforcement agencies didn’t report any homicides to the FBI.
“Does the FBI know every agency in the U.S. that could report but has chosen not to? The answer is no,” Alexia Cooper, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics who studies the FBI’s data, told the Journal. “What we know is that some places have chosen not to report these, for whatever reason.”
Mike White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, said when a police department has big increases in the numbers of officer-involved killings, it can be a red flag about problems inside a police department.
“Sometimes that can be tied to poor leadership and problems with accountability,” he said.
Incredibly, among the FBI records are almost no police shootings from departments in three of the most populous states in the country—Florida, New York and Illinois.
Florida’s numbers haven’t been included in the national tally since 1996 because they don’t conform to the FBI requirements—and a spokeswoman for the state agency said in an email that Florida was “unable” to meet the FBI’s reporting requirements because its tracking software was outdated.
New York claims it isn’t able to track information about justifiable police homicides, and a spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services told the Journal the agency was “looking to modify our technology so we can reflect these numbers.”
The Journal says Illinois just began reporting crime statistics to the FBI in 2010 and hasn’t phased in the detailed homicide reports.
“We cannot begin adding additional pieces because we are newcomers to the federal program,” said Terri Hickman, director of the Illinois State Police’s crime-reporting program.