The frustration with the lack of reliable data on how often police kill civilians has reached the highest levels, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that the lack of data was “unacceptable” and needed to be fixed.
As the anger at police killings of Black men has spread across the nation, one troubling fact that has emerged is that no one really knows how many people get killed by police every year because law enforcement agencies aren’t required to submit the data.
“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said yesterday, using a ceremony in Washington in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. to make his point. “This strikes many—including me—as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.”
An analysis by the Wall Street Journal published last month revealed that more than 550 police killings were missing from the national tally. Only about 750 of the country’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies have contributed to the count in recent years. In addition, ProPublica reported that the 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that Blacks age 15 to 19 were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.
The White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing held a marathon eight-hour hearing earlier this week that spent considerable time on the lack of comprehensive data—but the task force ironically is co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who was chief of the Washington, DC, police department while it went an entire decade without reporting police killings beginning in 1998.
A major 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 states, 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?
But interestingly the FBI does know how often police get killed or injured in the line of duty. It found that in 2013, 27 officers died from injuries sustained in the line of duty during “felonious incidents,” while 49 died due to accidents.
Holder said a better system of record-keeping would be a “commonsense step that would begin to address serious concerns about police officer safety, as well as the need to safeguard civil liberties.”
Last month with very little fanfare Congress passed a bill called the Death in Custody Reporting Act, forcing states to report to the justice department the number of people who have died each year while being arrested or in police custody. States must also give details such as the gender and race of the person who died and the circumstances surrounding the incident. States that fail to comply will be subject to a reduction of federal funds of up to 10 percent, with the money stripped from the states that failed to comply being reallocated to states that did.
But some protesters have said they fear a reduction of 10 percent of federal funds may not be enough to force recalcitrant states to submit their data.
At the White House Task Force hearing, Roberto Villasenor, the chief of police for Tucson, Arizona, and a member of the task force, said he was “floored” when he found out “that we as a profession don’t track all lethal use of force data.”