Death toll from violent cops is a guessing game

By: Patrice McDermott

Originally published by USA Today

Add two more killings to the Chicago police death toll from this weekend in a familiar story. Unarmed people, mostly black men, shot by police. People, mostly black, dying in police custody. Over the past year, the consciousness of the American public has been seared with these stunning facts and shocking images. The deaths, and other instances of police violence that disproportionately target African-American communities, have fueled demands for greater transparency in reporting by police forces nationwide.

A major impediment to justice and accountability for police violence is the lack of comprehensive data on law enforcement-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents. Now, however, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has come out against a federal mandate on reporting deaths in police custody. I beg to differ: Police transparency should not be seen as a hindrance to responsible policing. Rather, it is critical for accountability and vital for public trust in our police forces.

It is shocking how little we know — from the federal level on down to the most local precinct — about how often these deaths and serious bodily injuries occur. We are left in the dark when it comes to official, verifiable figures on police-involved shootings and deaths in law enforcement custody, where they happen and how they are stratified along racial and other demographic lines. The Wall Street Journalreported last year that according to a 2012 study by criminologist David Klinger, three sources of information about deaths caused by police — the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Statistics — differ widely in any given year or state. The FBI, for example, captures data on justifiable homicides by law enforcement officers, but only when a civilian is a suspected felon or killed while committing a felony, and such reporting is voluntary.

How can it be, in this era of open data, that we know so little? Much of what we do know is thanks not to government records, but rather to old-fashioned reporting by a few dedicated journalists. Wall Street Journal reporters collected and analyzed the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies and discovered that “more than 550 police killings (between 2007 and 2012) were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved.” Reporters for The (London) Guardian and The Washington Post compiled data on differing aspects of law enforcement-involved violence, but they had to do so by poring over news accounts, police reports and other records to try to capture a fuller picture on the issues.

An existing law, the Death in Custody Reporting Act, requires states that receive specific federal allocations under a key 1968 crime control act report detailed information every quarter to the attorney general “regarding the death of any person who is detained, arrested, en route to incarceration, or incarcerated in state or local facilities or a boot camp prison.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects inmate death records from each of the nation’s 50 state prison systems and about 2,800 local jail jurisdictions, and records of all deaths occurring during the process of arrest. That’s great, except that the death-reporting law is not being fully implemented. Thus, reliable and uniform reporting is unavailable, and a lack of information remains a systematic impediment to public trust in law enforcement institutions.

This year, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced a bill (with the potentially misleading acronym of the PRIDE Act) that would provide another hook to make compliance with reporting mandatory:Eligible states and Indian tribes could receive grants to combat the lack of resources — cited by Lynch as a key reason so many police departments don’t report these statistics. Attached to the grants would be a requirement to report to the Justice Department all incidents involving a law enforcement officer and use of force that results in serious bodily injury or death, to include the gender, race, ethnicity and age of each individual who was shot, injured or killed.

Critically, the PRIDE Act calls for the attorney general, in coordination with the FBI director, to issue guidance on establishing standard data collection systems, including standard and consistent definitions, such as for “use of force.” These are imperative to identifying how and where racial bias occurs in police-related use of force incidents — a crucial first step to dealing with the issue.

As we have repeatedly seen, however, passage of legislation is insufficient to bring about change in policy and practice. Initiatives begun with fanfare often fade with time and distraction.

The larger public-interest community must raise its voices on police violence and advocate for basic transparency. In light of Lynch’s comments, it is particularly important that civil society factions — especially those groups that care about government openness, accountability and social justice — join forces to secure meaningful and enduring change.

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