According to FBI Director James B. Comey, citizens are not the only ones concerned by the disturbing lack of data on police-involved shootings.
“It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the U.K. are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” he said.
Comey, who spoke last week to a group of about 100 politicians and law enforcement officials, said, “You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,’ which I saw this weekend. … The CDC can do the same thing with the flu. It’s ridiculous — it’s embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
The reason “we can’t talk about crime” the way Comey describes is in part due to the voluntary nature of reporting police shootings. Very few departments report the information since they are not required to, and even when they do report it, it is not always in a timely manner. So although the FBI has already been tracking this information for a long time, it was not consistent. Out of 18,000 police departments throughout the country, only three percent of them report their police shootings, leaving for very skewed data.
But, in a first for federal officials, the Justice Department last week revealed that it is finally trying to track how many deaths occur in police custody. According to U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, “We are working closely with law enforcement to develop national consistent standards for collecting this kind of data.”
“The administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data,” she said.
Meanwhile, other attempts at “national, consistent data” have already been made — and had more success than the FBI. But even these attempts show how difficult it is to obtain accurate statistics. The Washington Post and Guardian both keep their own databases. At the time of this publication, the Washington Post reported 769 shot and killed by police officers in 2015, but the Guardian pegged the number at 896. Even though the two numbers are not substantially different, they still show just how complicated it is to accurately record this information.
While the Justice Department is finally taking a step in the right direction in tracking this information, it remains to be seen just how useful the data will be, depending on how they collect it and what they actually record. According to David Klinger, a professor at the University of Missouri and former police officer, “There are all sorts of important bits of info that should be collected in a national data base of deaths involving the cops. If they get it right, good on them. If not, well…” Only time will tell “if they get it right” since it’s taken considerably long to take this initiative in the first place.
The most effective solution would be to make the reporting mandatory rather than voluntary, and some states are taking steps to rectify this national problem. Texas, for instance, has approved legislation that requires officers to report shootings, rather than leaving it as a voluntary practice.