Why the government has so little data on police violence

FBI Director James Comey criticized the lack of official data available on police-involved shootings Wednesday, saying some private newspapers so far have done a better job at producing statistics.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
FBI Director James Comey testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington in July 2015.

Since last summer, after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., the use of lethal force by law enforcement has become a topic of intense debate.

Since then, city police departments across the country have been seeking to reestablish trust with the public, The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported. Methods range from teaming up with federal authorities to reverting to the old days of community policing.

Yet headline after headline, one indisputable problem remains: the absence of official data available on police-involved shootings.

Even FBI Director James Comey decried the lack of information, as he spoke Wednesday to more than 100 politicians and law enforcement officials gathered at the Justice Department’s Summit on Violent Crime Reduction.

“You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,’ which I saw this weekend … The CDC can do the same with the flu,” said Director Comey, according to The Washington Post. “It’s ridiculous — it’s embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”

This is not the first time Comey and other public officials have criticized the lack of data. The FBI chief employed the same language to describe the problem to Georgetown University students earlier this year, saying: “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country.”

But Comey pointed out Wednesday that private sources, such as The Guardian and The Washington Post, have begun compiling databases far superior to the official ones.

“It is unacceptable that The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” he said.

In a project named “The Counted,” the Guardian has tallied 891 people who have been killed by police in America this year. The Post, which has a similar investigation probing those who were fatally shot by police this year, counts 759 people.

Of course, some national data exists on police violence. Law enforcement agencies are asked to self-report officer-involved shootings as part of an FBI annual initiative known as “justifiable homicides,” according to the Post.

But “that number – which only includes self-reported information from about 750 law enforcement agencies – hovers around 400 ‘justifiable homicides’ by police officers each year,” the paper reported last September. “The [Justice] department stopped releasing those numbers after 2009, because, like the FBI data, they were widely regarded as unreliable.”

But Comey’s most recent complaints may be his last. His comments come on the heels of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s announcement Monday, that federal authorities have begun compiling their most comprehensive database yet.

“The program is understood to be already active, with a view to full implementation at the start of 2016,” reports the Guardian.

“All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,” said Comey earlier this year. “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

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