Tracking Police Shootings

The federal government has finally decided that tracking national data about police shootings and in-custody police deaths is important. With police shootings regularly devastating communities, understanding the patterns behind the problem is essential to getting a handle on the violence. In theory, beginning next year we will no longer need to count on private tracking websites to get this critical information. But, unfortunately, the FBI’s new tracking plan sounds an awful lot like its old, ineffective tracking plan – it relies on police departments to voluntarily self-report fatal police encounters, something that secretive police departments are seldom willing to do.

The FBI already relies on police departments to voluntarily self-report their police-caused deaths, and that has not worked out so well. Since 2011, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police departments have voluntarily shared information about officer-involved shootings. As a result, FBI tracking thus far has counted only a tiny fraction of the police shootings uncovered by newspapers like The Guardian and The Washington Post that are privately keeping count. James B. Comey, the director of the FBI, has called it “embarrassing” that the news media produces more accurate data than the FBI on such an important issue, and he has had to admit, “We can’t have an informed discussion because we don’t have data.” The federal government can give you up-to-date statistics on everything from turkey hatchery production to hourly precipitation rates, but it cannot tell you how many children were shot by police in a given year. That’s a problem.

Under the new plan, the FBI will rely on “peer pressure and financial incentives” to get police departments to start turning over their data. But without a mandatory requirement, an enforcement mechanism, or a punishment for departments that lie or fail to participate, it’s hard to fathom how the government actually expects to entice the 97% of law enforcement agencies currently refusing to provide data to get with the program. Voluntary reporting has been a miserable failure. A new initiative based on this same model is a toothless pipe dream just to humor those of us who are outraged by all of the police shootings, rather than a meaningful attempt to actually gather information.

Additionally, there’s the issue that the government has not decided yet precisely what it will track under the new plan. The Washington Post gathers more than a dozen details about each case, including the age and race of the victim, whether and how the person was armed, and the circumstances that led to the encounter with police. That should be the absolute minimum of what the government needs to  track. But what has been missing from both the private and governmental tracking efforts thus far, and should be included in the FBI tracking (but probably won’t), is sufficient information about the identity of the police-shooters.

Police departments have a blue wall of silence, where they protect their own, even when the offending officer has acted egregiously. All too often, we see shooters’ colleagues telling false tales to justify a shooting, only to be proven liars by videotapes of the shooting. And often police departments won’t even release the name of the shooter, so there is no monitoring of whether that same officer offends again and again. The Washington Post reports that in 20% of the police shootings it has tracked, the officer’s name is never released. It would be helpful if the FBI forced departments to identify the shooter so that data about shooters could be maintained as well. The police assault on unarmed people, particularly black men, has got to stop. The first step is uncovering the true extent of the problem. More lip service just won’t cut it.

via FiveThirtyEight
via FiveThirtyEight


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