America needs a reliable death-by-police database

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Update: A police officer in South Carolina has been charged with murder, after his shooting of an unarmed black man was captured on video.


"We know the number of hogs and pigs living on U.S. farms, but we don't know how many police shootings there were," says Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project.

According to the USDA, as of September 1, 2014 there were 65.1 million pigs and hogs in the U.S. The data about police shootings is not as recent as that about farm animals; last year, the FBI reported that there were 410 justifiable homicides in 2012 — the most recent data available. While the USDA doesn't specify the number of farmers who contributed to their count, the Washington Post noted that out of over 17,000 police departments in America, only 750 submitted information to the FBI's report. That's because, shockingly, filing these reports is not mandatory.


Late last year, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the aftermath in Ferguson, President Obama established the Task Force for 21st Century Policing to look into some of the shortcomings of America's law enforcement policies and practices, as well as recommend improvements for police departments around the country. This past Monday, the Task Force released its first report. The Task Force seemed to notice that the voluntary nature of the death reporting is problematic. We've excerpted a few parts of the report; italics are ours:

"In-custody deaths are not only deaths in a prison or jail but also deaths that occur in the process of an arrest. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) implemented the Arrest Related Deaths data collection in 2003 as part of requirements set forth in the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 and reenacted in 2014, but this is a voluntary reporting program."

The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act was passed 15 years ago to monitor the deaths of prisoners, but Congress passed a new beefed-up version of the law in December. It now requires the reporting of citizen deaths that happen while in an officer's custody or while being pursued by officers. But it only requires police departments receiving federal funds to do the reporting. (With all of the weapons the Department of Defense has been granting to police departments, it seems like that should be a high percentage of them.) If officers fail to report such incidents, ten percent of the federal grants for their departments can be deducted by the Attorney General in their state.

Dr. Brian Burghart, a professor and publisher of the Reno News and Review, created a crowd-sourced site for tracking officer-involved shootings. Burghart thinks the penalties for failing to comply should be harsher. "Attach some criminal penalties for non-compliance, instead of leaving it up to the U.S. Attorney General's discretion," Burghart said by e-mail. "Because the AG is a political appointment, they tend to act politically. Which means they will never withhold funding from police agencies that don't comply." Burghart tries to bring attention to fatal encounters every way he can, and he even has the support of this puppet:

"More data" was the Task Force's major request in the report:

Access to this data is important to gain a national picture of police use of force as well as to incentivize the systematic and transparent collection and analysis of use of force incident data at the local level. The reported data should include information on the circumstances of the use of force, as well as the race, gender, and age of the decedents. Data should be reported to the U.S. Department of Justice through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System or an expansion of collections managed by the BJS."


ACLU's Edwards was very happy to see the Task Force request more detailed information about citizen deaths at the hands of police. "We support and urge the federal government to report the number of people shot and injured by law enforcement, with demographic information; race, age, etc. Once we have that info, we'd like the federal government to review that data to [analyze] why [shootings] happen in the communities they do," said Edwards, during a phone interview. "Right now the voluntary reporting that is in place is insufficient. It leaves too much undocumented. We need to ensure that departments all across the nation are reporting this info, and if they aren't doing it we need to make sure there are consequences."

When I spoke with Tim Richardson, a senior legislative liaison at the Fraternal Order of Police, he said that getting a full and complete database would likely require another federal statute. "It's voluntary now but you probably need to make it law," he said by phone.


The Task Force's report actually suggested that it might be a violation of the law that these statistics haven't historically been rigorously collected. The report says it's because the federal government hasn't ponied up the money to make it happen:

"… Section 210402 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 requires the U.S. Attorney General to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and to “publish an annual summary of the data acquired under this section.”

But the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has never been allocated the funds necessary to undertake the serious and sustained program of research and development to fulfill this mandate. Expanded research and data collection are also necessary to knowing what works and what does not work, which policing practices are effective and which ones have unintended consequences. Greater acceptance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) National Incident-Based Reporting System could also benefit policing practice and research endeavors."


The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 established guidelines as to how incidents of excessive force by police should be reported. But the act fell short, according to the Task Force's report, mostly because of insufficient funding. Another notable hole in the Act was the mandated limitations for the use of data; the law specifies that "data acquired under this section shall be used only for research or statistical purposes and may not contain any information that may reveal the identity of the victim or any law enforcement officer."

In lieu of a reliable database of killings by police, a number of individuals and organizations have taken the process of documenting police killings and brutality into their own hands. In addition to Dr. Burghart, former FBI agent Jim FisherDeadspin and an organization called all have attempted to create databases that document incidents of police malpractice.


Edwards believes that police departments should want this type of information, as it could very well benefit them.

"This isn't just about gathering info to criticize police, this is about changing areas where there are significant problems," he said. "The community needs to know; legislators and stakeholders and police should want to know."


Better data collection on incidents of excessive force involving law enforcement would be a win-win situation, according to Edwards, although significant obstacles still remain to making it happen. "The fact that people are being killed is controversial," he said. "The fact that we should be keeping accurate data on who is being killed is not."

"I write about the future (Associate Producer at @ThisIsFusion).

I write about the past (publisher of #OGToldMe).

Oakland, CA raised me."

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