Will This New Federal Program for Tracking Police Shootings Answer Activists' Calls?

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the start of an open-source system to track police use of force and civilian fatalities.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Oct 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

In video after video, a civilian—usually black and unarmed—was gunned down by a police officer. Trying to make sense of these deaths, many in the U.S. asked for the basic details—how many? How often? Why?

The answer that kept coming back: No one really knows.

That line of questions made plain the lack of comprehensive federal data on police use of force and lethal interactions with civilians, leading activists and media outlets to attempt to track the numbers themselves.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a new program to keep track of the number of people killed by police, data on non-fatal shootings, use of force by law enforcement, and civilian deaths in police custody.

“Certainly the fact that we don’t have a nationwide, consistent set of standards…not only does it make our job difficult; it makes it hard to see these trends, and that’s why it is so important to focus on these [numbers],” Lynch said in a press conference Monday.

The open-source system will be the most comprehensive government-led effort to track this data yet, and it will launch in 2016. It will be run by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI, in conjunction with national police organizations such as the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association.

“This data is not only vital—we are working closely with law enforcement to develop national consistent standards for collecting this kind of information,” Lynch added.

Calls for a federal mandate for data collection on police shootings and use of force have grown in the year since the police-related deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer.

Just last week Lynch made comments that seemed to downplay the importance of the federal government’s role in mandating the collection of this data, and suggested police and community relations were more important than hard numbers.

“One of the things we are focusing on at the Department of Justice is not trying to reach down from Washington and dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutiae of record-keeping,” Lynch told NBC journalist Chuck Todd. “The statistics are important, but the real issues are ‘What steps are we all taking to connect communities...with police and back with the government?”

Lynch was criticized by activists and journalists for belittling the gravity of the data by calling it “minutiae” and failing to mandate data collection.

“It’s all well and good to say communities and their cops just need to get along,” wrote civil liberties blogger and journalist Marcy Wheeler. “Things aren’t going to improve so long as cops can just make s--t up, in spite of data to the contrary.”

In response to the criticism, Lynch clarified her remarks at Monday's press conference.

“[L]et me be clear: police shootings are not minutiae at all and the department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data,” Lynch said. “Unfortunately, my comments gave the misperception that we were changing our view in some way about the importance of this data—nothing could be further from the truth.”