The Justice Department recently announced that it would begin the nationwide collection data on police shootings and other violent encounters with the public in 2017. The news comes after a series of protests and investigations since 2014 stemming from several deadly episodes.
The project, reported by the New York Times, is the most ambitious federal research for tracking the use of force by police officers. The project is designed to address “a huge and frustrating void” in data available to the public on shootings that have created unrest around the country.
The Justice Department plans to gather more data on the use of force by federal agents and assist local law enforcement report information on a broader range of police encounters. However, several key elements in the reporting process will be incumbent upon local police departments to voluntarily submit data. And there are some civil rights advocates who have concerns about the fact that the Justice Department hasn’t defined the imposition of the financial penalties set by Congress to encourage the reporting of police shootings. The law passed by Congress in 2014 for reporting in-custody deaths authorizes the Attorney General to impose financial penalties on states that fail to report data.
After a series of fatal incidents, officials have found difficulty in collecting even basic information about how often these shootings occur and how to prevent them. Now the most comprehensive records on police shootings are those of the news media. Both The Washington Post and The Guardian, which have created running databases. According to the Post database, 991 people were fatally shot by the police last year, and 807 have been so far this year.
The Justice Department plan tasks the FBI to initiate a pilot program in early 2017 to assemble data on the use of force by about 178,000 agents at major federal law enforcement agencies including the DEA, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as the Bureau’s own data.
Justice will also start collecting data from local and state law enforcement departments on “in custody” deaths. These are cases of deaths not only in shootings, but suicide and natural death.
Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2014 which required local departments to report only fatal encounters. Justice officials want to rely on local law enforcement to also voluntarily report nonlethal incidents.
Another part of the plan will authorize $750,000 for a “police data initiative” to help local police departments collect and publicly release information on a wider range of actions, such as stops of citizens, searches, use of force, shootings, and other encounters.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in announcing the plan that comprehensive and accurate data on police encounters was vital in “increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.”
Lacking better data has made it “very, very hard” to determine the causes of police shootings, or even whether there was an actual increase in these episodes or just increased publicity.
The announcement by the Justice Department comes from a presidential commission appointed by President Obama in 2014 to study ways to reduce conflict and tensions between the police and the communities in which they serve. The commission released several recommendations in March 2015, by which the President commented that the country needed to seize the opportunity to “transform” police-community relations.
“We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported,” he said.