The U.S. Government Is Going to Start Tracking Violent Police Encounters
Beyond the troubling rate of frequency with which American citizens are killed by police, another piece of the complex social issue presented itself as equally confounding, for many. Earlier this year, the fact that the federal government lacked a comprehensive means of tracking officer-involved violence became more well known than ever, and it left millions of Americans dumbfounded. Lethal interactions with police officers have become some of the most prevalent issues in today’s political arena, and it’s hard for most to fathom that the United States, up until this point, did not have in place a reliable way to keep record of how many people are killed by police, how many times interactions with police turn violent, and other forms of data that could help lawmakers take meaningful steps in addressing the militarization of police forces across the country.
However, the Justice Department has made an announcement that could change the face of policing for generations to come. In a statement released by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, several steps are being taken to “enable the nationwide collection of data on law enforcement interactions with civilians, including data related to the use of force by law enforcement officers.” Lynch, herself a woman of color who has often spoken on the tense racial divide in the country, continued by saying “accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations.” Some of the goals of the new initiative, she says, include ” increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.” The effort will be undertaken with the help of “local, state, tribal and federal partners to ensure that we put in place a system to collect data that is comprehensive, useful and responsive.”
As the DOJ explains, the announcement comes in response to findings made by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group of leaders chosen by Barack Obama who in 2015 published an extensive report calling on law enforcement to “collect, maintain and report data . . . on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.” As Lynch explains, “in 2015, and in collaboration with local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began work on a ‘National Use of Force Data Collection,’ an online portal to collect use-of-force data from law enforcement agencies across the country.” This week’s announcement serves to buttress the efficacy of that Data Collection, and it plans to do so in myriad ways, which can be seen in the image below.
As reported by NPR, “a lack of a national database became a sticking point in recent years, particularly after a string of high-profile cases in which unarmed Black men died at the hands of police.” NPR cites the website Fatal Encounters and the Washington Post‘s database as operations that have attempted to “fill that void” in nationwide infrastructure. But it seems this week’s announcement from the DOJ will play a major role in working to eliminate such a void. In fact, the New York Times calls the project “the most ambitious the federal government has undertaken in tracking the use of force by police officers.”
The Times also includes the questions some have about how the DOJ plans on enforcing some of its endeavors, including the reliance on local officials to submit data on a voluntary basis. “Some civil rights advocates said the Justice Department had not made clear how it would impose financial penalties set by Congress to encourage the reporting of police shootings,” says the report. Many are concerned also that, with President Obama leaving office in just a few months, that this endeavor is “essentially being punted to the next administration.”
Until the DOJ’s pilot program goes into effect in 2017, the data citizens currently have available, such as the database amassed by the Post, provides frightening statistics. “According to the Post database, 991 people were fatally shot by the police last year, and 754 have been so far this year,” says the Times.