Today, the Internet has made it possible for people with few resources to gain access to more information than at any time in human history. Yet it appears to be easier to find out the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth than it is to know how many unarmed people have died at the hands of the police in municipalities across the country.
After my exhaustive search failed to locate an official source indicating how often law enforcement uses deadly force, particularly when encountering an unarmed suspect, and after exploring the works of criminologists such as former LAPD officer David Klinger, I’ve come to the conclusion that the data is not there.
In an article titled, “Is Police Brutality on the Rise”, Mary Sanchez of the Chicago Tribune recently reported:
Congress voted to institute this kind of reporting. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act called for compiling data on the use of excessive force by police. Annual reports were envisioned, the very type of information that would provide a useful frame of reference in the current controversy.
Studies have been done of various police departments and assessments culled from media accounts of fatal shooting [sic] have been attempted. But until better data are available, we have no hope of dissuading people from the idea that police are increasingly targeting their sons, nor do we have a good starting point for holding police accountable.
The Uniform Crime Report, compiled by the FBI, has some data, but it relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement.
I’m not going to go into why voluntary reporting to the FBI doesn’t seem to be enough — that’s beyond the scope of this posting — but I will say that across jurisdictions, when an officer kills someone with his or her firearm, an investigation almost always follows. But, somehow, the content of those investigations fails to reach the FBI’s centralized data collection and reporting system. On the other hand, there isn’t a lack of reporting when a civilian causes someone’s death. In fact, all civilian crimes that are reported at the local level have also been documented and reported at the national level since 1929 by the FBI.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, collects monthly counts of the number of crimes known to law enforcement from thousands of agencies throughout the nation. Information on the number of crimes known is recorded for eight offense categories, based on the most serious offense reported for each crime incident:
- murder and non-negligent manslaughter
- aggravated assault
- motor vehicle theft
In addition, the SRS collects counts of arrests for 28 offense categories broken down by the age, sex, and race of the arrestee. So while there are databases on crime and databases that track shootings of police, there is no formal database tracking shootings by police.
For this reason, police-involved shootings are hard to quantify. According to criminologist David Klinger, while the FBI’s uniform crime reports are the primary data-collection mechanism that tracks police-involved shootings, many police agencies do not report these homicides to the FBI. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air speaking of the lack of reporting of both justified and non-justified homocides committed by police across the country, Klinger said, “for whatever reason, the FBI numbers are lower than the numbers you gather from local police departments.”
Couple that with the discovery that the police report on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is missing key information. An ACLU attorney told Yahoo News that the two-page police report, which the Ferguson Police Department released only after pressure from journalists and civil liberties advocates, is largely redacted or left blank.
The report even omitted the victim’s name and a description of the offense – the fatal shooting of Brown. Speaking of the report, ACLU attorney Rothert said, “It doesn’t tell us anything. We have to imagine what is there because it is all redacted.”
If the Ferguson police report is any indication of the level of reporting submitted after a police involved shooting, it’s not surprising that the FBI’s numbers are low.The people of this country deserve better. When law enforcement is involved in the taking of a life, arguably one of the single most significant actions they can take, the taxpayers should know about it — because indirectly, the police are acting on our behalf.
When this story was originally posted it included a link to a White House petition created to bring this issue to the attention of the Obama administration and to ask that congress mandate the reporting of the use of deadly force to the FBI in all cases as opposed to the voluntary reporting that is now required. Unfortunately, I did not garner enough signatures for the petition to gain any traction — the petition was removed after only 800 signatures were captured.
Publisher, LA Progressive