Hundreds of Deaths Later, the Feds Will Finally Start Tracking Police Shootings
American activists have pushed the government for years to start tracking police shootings of civilians, and in the span of less than two weeks, two federal agencies are clamoring to do just that.
In separate announcements, the FBI and the Department of Justice say they’ll create programs to monitor police-involved shootings at the federal level. Law enforcement agencies are tasked with tallying their own officer-involved shootings, but after the officer-involved death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it came to light that no government agency maintains a complete database of the national numbers.
On Wednesday, FBI Director James B. Comey called it “embarrassing” and “ridiculous” that up until very recently, officials had made no concerted effort to track the sort of violence that has inspired national protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
His comments, reported by The Washington Post, came during a private meeting with politicians and law enforcement officers and on the heels of his announcement late last month that the FBI will start publishing a detailed crime report, including information on police use of deadly force. A timeline has not been specified, but once the data is collected, it will be released as a publication along with the FBI’s annual crime statistics report.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch made a similar declaration, saying the Department of Justice will create an open-source system that will track the number of people killed by police and incorporate data on nonfatal shootings, civilian deaths while in police custody, and use of force by law enforcement. Calling the data “vital,” she said the absence of a consistent set of standards “makes it hard to see these trends, and that’s why it is so important to focus on these [numbers].”
The recent pledges for policing reform have been a long time coming. In February, during a speech at Georgetown University, Comey acknowledged what he called a deep “disconnect” between police agencies and communities of color. “Debating the nature of policing is very important, but I worry that it has become an excuse, at times, to avoid doing something harder,” he said.
Even Lynch’s predecessor, Eric Holder, urged the government to ramp up efforts to report and collect data on police shootings—that was in January, when he called the government’s lack of data a “troubling reality.”
In the absence of reliable government statistics, journalists have picked up the slack by launching their own public Internet databases to track deadly shootings and even provide geographic and demographic context about each of the people killed. Still, there are discrepancies among the databases. The Washington Post puts the number of people fatally shot by police this year at 759; The Guardian puts the number at 891.