Will the FBI Do What Is Necessary to Stop the Killing of Black People by Police?

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FBI lost, mislabeled evidence for years

The FBI announced that it will begin to collect more data on police shootings, though there is every indication that the federal agency will resist efforts to reform a system in which law enforcement agencies voluntarily report police killings.

In an official statement on the FBI website, FBI Director James Comey said the agency would compile the data into a publication on police use of force in shooting incidents, including details about what happened and who was involved, the nature of the injuries or deaths, and the underlying circumstances regarding the incidents.

“For decades, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program has used statistics and information provided by law enforcement agencies to measure our nation’s crime problem. While tallying the numbers of homicides, armed robberies, aggravated assaults, and other crimes is useful, it does not go far enough to help us determine how these crimes occur and what we can do to prevent these crimes in the first place,” Comey said.

FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey

Comey said that one way to better understand what’s happening in communities across America is to increase participation in the National Incident-Based Reporting System.

“This database, known as NIBRS, doesn’t just include statistics. It gives the full picture–the circumstances and the context involving each incident,” Comey said. “It asks: What happened? Where did it happen? What time did it occur? Who was there and what is their demographic information? What is the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim?” he added.

Comey said that while NIBRS provides a clearer and more complete picture of crime in the U.S., only a little more than a third of police agencies provide data to the system.

“We need every agency, from the largest to the smallest, to submit data via NIBRS,” he said. “The more comprehensive the data, the better prepared we will be to fight crime. And with this data, we can grow and adapt to ever-changing criminal threats.”

He added that although the information would be helpful, we need more law enforcement agencies to submit their justifiable homicide data so that what’s happening across the country can be better understood.

Following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Wall Street Journal found that hundreds of fatal shootings by police were not counted in federal data. As a result, news outlets such as the Guardian and the Washington Post began compiling their own statistics on police shootings in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Guardian emphasizes the FBI will continue to resist pressure from lawmakers and activists for a comprehensive tally of all homicides committed by law enforcement, opting to continue with the existing voluntary reporting system, whose accuracy has been called into question. The FBI has no power to implement a mandatory system.

Further, Comey did not indicate how the FBI would try to collect more information on police shootings. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the mandatory reporting of killings by police, and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have proposed legislation to make the collection of data on the use of deadly force by local police agencies mandatory. However, the bill, with a similar version introduced in the House of Representatives, has little chance of passage in a dysfunctional, recalcitrant Republican-controlled Congress.

In February, Comey received praise for a thoughtful speech he gave on the “hard truths” of policing and the role of unconscious bias in the killing of Black men.

“Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us,” Comey said, noting a song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”:

Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover

In addition, Comey reflected on the legacy of law enforcement and the troubling history of his own agency, a past we cannot forget.

“There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. It is a single page,” Comey said. “The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.”

Under Hoover’s COINTELPRO, the FBI waged a war against social movements, Black leaders and civil rights organizations in order to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” Hoover—who was rumored to have been of African descent himself– was obsessed with Black America, and used the power of the government to decimate Black America and assassinate figures such as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. For the harm he inflicted on Black people, Hoover was honored with a building in his name, the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which houses the FBI headquarters.

The looming legacy of Hoover, and the recent actions (or inactions) by Comey, brings into question whether the FBI is able and willing to do enough to combat police brutality.

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