New Justice Department System Will Count the People Killed by Police, Meeting Demands of the Black Activists

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Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Attorney General Loretta Lynch

The U.S. Department of Justice is testing a new pilot program to count the number of people killed by police around the country.  The open source system is touted as the most comprehensive effort to date by the government to account for deaths by law enforcement in the U.S.

Lawmakers and anti-police brutality activists, not to mention the #BlackLivesMatter movement, have made calls for a more accurate accounting of such data, in light of the high-profile attention given to the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.  The Guardian and the Washington Post have maintained their own databases of deaths by law enforcement, in the absence of a reliable official source for such information to better understand the scope of the problem.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the new program on Monday.  Employing an approach that is nearly identical to the Guardian system known as The Counted, the government effort will be operated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is the DOJ statistics division.  It is viewed as an improved version of the discontinued Arrest Related Deaths Count, which published annual data between 2003 and 2009, but is now defunct due to the voluntary nature of the program and wide variation in reporting from state to state.

According to the attorney general, the new initiative will begin by procuring media reports and other open-sourced records of officer-related deaths.  The system would then verify facts concerning the particular incident by surveying local police departments, medical examiner’s offices and investigative offices.  A Bureau of Justice Statistics official told the Guardian this more robust system would standardize data collection and eliminate the federal government’s reliance on voluntary reporting of so-called justifiable homicides by local police agencies.  Reporting coordinators in each state would contact local departments on a quarterly basis for official records that open sourcing identified. In the future, the bureau may consider data collection on extreme use-of-force cases as well.

Recently, James Comey, the FBI director, called for additional data on police-involved fatalities, but stopped short of discussing any changes to the voluntary system already in place.

Last week, Lynch told Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press that her department “is not trying to reach down from Washington and dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutiae of record-keeping,” adding that while the agency encouraged record keeping on such fatalities, it was more important to improve police-community relations.

“The statistics are important, but the real issues are: ‘what steps are we all taking to connect communities … with police and back with government?’” she said.

At this week’s announcement, Lynch clarified her remarks to Todd, insisting the data were vital.

“Let me be clear: police shootings are not minutiae at all and the department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data,” she said.

The FBI reported 444 deaths in 2014, while the Washington Post has recorded 754 people shot dead by police in the U.S. so far this year, and the Guardian has tallied 884 in 2015.

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