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FBI Announces New Way of Tracking Police-Related Deaths After Director Calls Old System ‘Ridiculous’

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

After declaring its former system a “travesty,” the FBI has announced it’s revamping the way it tracks police-related deaths.

A senior FBI official told The Washington Post the new system, scheduled to go online in 2017, will not just track deaths from police shootings, but also record deaths related to the use of stun guns, pepper spray and fists and feet.

“We are responding to a real human outcry,” said Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division. “People want to know what police are doing, and they want to know why they are using force. It always fell to the bottom before. It is now the highest priority.”

Morris said the new system will be more detailed and also record the race and gender of the officers and suspects, the level of threat the officer faced and the weapon used by either party.

Several high-profile police killings have led to more scrutiny of law enforcement agencies and a demand for data on Americans killed in encounters with the police. FBI Director James Comey said it was “ridiculous” that two news outlets had more accurate data than the FBI.

“It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between [U.S.] police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” said Comey at a summit on reducing violent crime in October.

The Guardian has been tracking police-related deaths through an online project called The Counted. According to The Counted, police have killed 1,058 Americans in 2015. Black people accounted for 266 of the 1,058 people killed. The Washington Post’s database, which only tracks police shootings, has recorded 913 deaths this year.

According to The Washington Post, the FBI has struggled to get data on police killings. Since 2011, only 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police agencies have provided information to federal officials. The Post also stated that the FBI’s old system had severely undercounted police-related deaths. In the past decade, the FBI only recorded about 400 deaths a year. Morris said the new system would make it easier for police agencies to submit information. He envisions an online system similar to a TurboTax form.

The Post’s database has also motivated the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS,) another Justice Department agency, to change the way it tracks police-related deaths. The BJS has scrapped its old system and created a new program based on The Post’s database and information gathered from open source data collection efforts. The bureau’s new system will produce its first year-end report in 2016.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., a member of the 35-person advisory board which approved the FBI’s new data collection system, said police agencies need to encourage their peers to report data about police-related deaths.

“Everyone has the right to know the details of these events,” he told The Washington Post.

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