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Epidemic of police shootings? FBI director says public needs better data

Better information on fatal police shootings could promote understanding between communities that feel targeted by police, and officers who feel public outrage has unleashed a "war on cops."

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    FBI Director James Comey participates in a session at the third annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, D.C., last month.
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Renewing his support for a nationwide use-of-force database, FBI Director James Comey defended law enforcement officers Sunday against a narrative that suggests "biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates."

"It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct, by images of possible misconduct, by images of perceived misconduct," Mr. Comey told a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in San Diego. "It's a narrative given force by the awesome power of human empathy."

But it is a narrative that has developed without comprehensive data on deaths and injuries at the hands of police, meaning Americans do not know for certain if there has been an increase in police shootings in recent years or if black people are more likely than white people to be shot during police encounters, Comey added.

In 2014, independent news organization ProPublica reported that black male teenagers are 21 times more likely than their white peers to be shot and killed by police. But the reported analyzed "terribly incomplete" federal data self-reported by police departments across the country, the organization noted.

Hard data – which the US Department of Justice said last week it would collect in a pilot program – could better inform public policy debates and promote understanding between communities that feel targeted by police and officers who feel that public outrage over recent shooting deaths by officers in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere has unleashed a full-fledged "war on cops."

Daunasia Yancey, a prominent member of the Black Lives Matter movement in Boston, said last month that Americans should be careful to avoid conflating public criticism with actual violence.

"I think that this 'war on cops' rhetoric is just another way to protect police from accountability," Ms. Yancey told NPR.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that 102 officers have been killed this year in the United States as of Oct. 1, including five officers killed by a sniper in Dallas. That's an increase of 9 percent over the same period last year. But the recent uptick is relatively small compared to the decades-long downward trend in police deaths.

In 2013, there were 109 officers killed – fewer than in any year since 1956, according to the memorial fund's data. Even with the uptick in officer deaths in 2014 and 2015, when 122 and 123 officers were killed, respectively, the numbers remained below average compared to the past several decades.

While the aggregate data in no way diminishes the individual loss of life, it does inform the broader narrative. That lesson cuts both ways, retired New York police detective Edward Conlon told NPR.

"It's not even half right that cops are at war with black America, and it's not even half right that there's war on cops, in any big or broad sense," Mr. Conlon said.

In the absence of a comprehensive national database on police use-of-force incidents, The Washington Post has tracked the number of people fatally shot by American police, counting 761 deaths so far this year. The Guardian, based in the United Kingdom, has counted 849 deaths in American police custody this year.

Comey has said it is unacceptable that the public cannot get that information from their own government.

"In the absence of information, we have anecdotes, we have videos, we have good people believing something terrible is happening in this country," Comey said Sunday, as The Wall Street Journal reported. "In a nation of almost one million sworn law enforcement officers, and tens of millions of police encounters every year, a small group of videos serves as proof of an epidemic."

The narrative has forced a wedge between law enforcement and the public, at times keeping "good officers in their car," Comey added.

The FBI's plans for a revamped data system include tracking the use of stun guns, pepper spray, and even fists and feet to cause serious injury.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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