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Death in Ferguson, Mo., Raises Many Questions – Including Why There Are No Good Data on Police Shootings

dcogcadmin | August 24, 2014

In its lead editorial Sunday, August 24, 2014, the Washington Post noted “precise, complete and reliable official information must inform” the discussion about police use of deadly force, in the wake of the shooting death August 9 of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet reporters and the public have been frustrated to learn that a 1994 statutory mandate to DOJ to collect and publish data on police use of excessive force has never been followed.  And FBI data on “justifiable homicides” by police are obviously incomplete (omitting all those unjustified). The editors called on Congress to legislate and fully fund collection of this “inexplicably” missing information.

The Post returned to the theme in a September 7 editorial:

“The situation in Ferguson has raised broader issues than the training and conduct of police in the St. Louis area, and it demands a broader response. Top on the list must be informing the national debate on police use of force with reliable figures. Congress in 1994 told the Justice Department to collect and publish national numbers on the excessive use of force, but federal officials have never managed to do it. Those numbers that are available are uninformative for various reasons. Congress should fix this problem.”

For a vivid description how hard it is to find such data, see Reno News & Review editor D. Brian Burghart’s account for Gawker of the two years he spent trying to assemble a list of such deaths, including aggressive use of public records laws.

For a report on the most recent FBI data, with continued caveats about its shortcomings, see Kevin Johnson, “Police killings highest in two decades.” USA Today, Nov. 11, 2014. The reporter quoted a criminology expert:

University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said the incomplete nature of the data renders the recent spike in such deaths even more difficult to explain.

“It could be as simple as more departments are reporting,” Walker said.

The Nebraska criminologist has been among the most vocal advocates calling for an all-inclusive national database to closely track deadly force incidents involving police.

“It is irresponsible that we don’t have a complete set of numbers,” Walker said. “Whether the numbers are up, down or stable, this (national database) needs to be done. … This is a scandal.”

The Washington Post continued in a December 1 editorial to point out how the Ferguson tragedy showed “when it comes to the realities of policing their cities and suburbs, many Americans did not know how much they did not know.”  Taking off in particular from White House ideas for better tracking of military gear passed on to local police, the editorial ended with a return to the need for better data on police shootings:

“Left out of the president’s proposals, though, was any mention of a systematic clean-up of the federal government’s data on police use of deadly force, the completeness and accuracy of which remain decidedly unsatisfactory 20 years after Congress passed a law intended to track such incidents. To this day, no annual report provides authoritative data on killings by police and the circumstances in which they occur. That’s the kind of truth that the federal government is uniquely equipped to seek, and to tell.”

UPDATES: “The newly created White House panel on policing will consider establishing a national repository that tracks all manner of civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers. It’s part of an effort to re-establish trust between police and the communities they serve, the co-chairman of the committee said.  Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, tapped by the Obama administration to help bolster law enforcement’s standing in the wake of national unrest stirred by a series of killings of young black men by white officers, told USA TODAY that the long-standing gap in police reporting “needs to be addressed.”

“It will be on the table, no question,” Ramsey said.

 Reported by USA Today December 12.


The Post lead editorial December 23 noted a bill awaiting the President’s signature that would start to repair the gaps in data, the bipartisan Death in Custody Reporting Act.  The measure would reinstate a requirement that lapsed years ago — that all deaths of individuals detained or in custody at local, state and federal levels be reported to the Department of Justice. Introduced repeatedly in prior years by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), only the extraordinary circumstances following recent police shootings have encouraged final passage. Unlike the current voluntary reporting scheme, that has yielded the unhelpful results widely criticized in the reports discussed above, this data requirement is backed by threat of withdrawal of federal criminal justice funds. (See House Judiciary Committee report on the bill, H.R. 1447, here.)

“Hopefully when we get information we can figure out how to reduce the numbers of people dying,” the Post editors quoted Rep. Scott, and added their own endorsement, “We can’t think of a better reason to look forward to Mr. Obama’s signature on the measure — and to keep pressure on the Justice Department to ensure conscientious implementation of it thereafter.”

By February 2015, even the FBI Director, James Comey, could acknowledge “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country.”  (Quote reported by the Washington Post from a Q&A session after a speech at Georgetown University, February 12.)