Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why We Don't Know How Many Americans Are Killed by Police

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why We Don't Know How Many Americans Are Killed by Police

Article excerpt

As the nation grapples with the latest incident of a police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man - this time in South Carolina - many have asked a simple question: How often does this happen?

The answer is: No one knows for sure, exactly. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report, considered the gold standard of crime data since the 1930s, is in many ways out of date and flawed. The nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies are not required to compile data on officer-involved shootings.

At a time when shootings in North Charleston, S.C.; Ferguson, Mo.; and Madison, Wis., are raising awareness about the issue, such data would be crucially important to understanding where problem areas might be and how to address them, say many activists and analysts. Indeed, other police reforms, such as body cameras, independent investigations, and reforms to the grand jury system would all be of only limited value without transparent statistics, they say.

Ultimately, the only way forward, they add, is a federal law compelling police departments to compile the data and send it to the FBI. While there are no signs such a law is imminent, an array of smaller moves - together with the growing chorus of criticism - suggests there are the beginnings of movement on the issue.

In February, FBI director James Comey highlighted the problem in a speech at Georgetown University. "Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn't give it to me, and it wasn't their fault," he said.

"Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable," he added.

To address some of the data problems, Mr. Comey has begun an overhaul of some of the FBI's data gathering. And last year, President Obama renewed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires states that get federal money for crime programs to report anyone who died in police custody.

But these have been called poor substitutes for a stronger federal law. "First and foremost, the dearth of data surrounding lethal use of force must be eliminated," said Walter Katz, a member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, in The New York Times. "Lawmakers have to force police departments to adopt a culture of transparency where a range of data including the use of force, traffic stops and complaints are made public."

US Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the need in January. "I've heard from a number of people who have called on policymakers to ensure better record-keeping on injuries and deaths that occur at the hands of police," he said at a ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. …

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