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The Battle Over Police Shootings Is Really Two Battles in One

The battle over police shootings isn’t just a fight about the substance of policies that encourage officers to shoot, nor on how prejudices infect police work. It is also a procedural battle over government transparency.

June 2, 2015

The Washington Post confirmed this past weekend what many of us already sensed from nearly ten months of intense media coverage of police shootings since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri last August:  police shooting deaths are far less rare than any of us would have ever imagined at the start of last summer. Acknowledging that this is so, asking why it is happening and how we can prevent it, does not require us to diminish the good work that police do every day in every community across the nation. On the contrary, it allows us to candidly seek ways in which cops and communities can do better by one another.  Three hundred and eight five (and counting) this year alone, the Post tells us, nearly a quarter of who were identified as mentally ill by family members or the police. That figure may or may not be accurate but at least the Post offered up a number, which is more than we can say about federal law enforcement officials. “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year,” FBI Director James Comey confessed in February.

Now take the Post’s statistic and combine it with the news last month from the FBI that the number of police officers who were “feloniously killed” in the line of duty in 2014, while up sharply from 2013 figures, remains below the annual average that has been established over the past 35 years. This means, as Radley Balko and others have pointed out recently, that it is safer today to be a police officer than it was a generation or two ago but perhaps more dangerous than ever to be a citizen (and especially a citizen of color) involved in a confrontation with the police even as violent crime rates have fallen.

Even where the power of police unions is strongest, and even though the problem seems most severe in those communities with the least amount of political power, the dichotomy between police safety and citizen jeopardy is unsustainable as a matter of law or fact. The safer our streets become, and the safer the job of policing becomes, the less justifiable is the excessive use of deadly force we see in so many of these police shooting cases. Judges may need some time to come around, and surely legislators will as well, but there already has been a verdict rendered by the American people: we want our cops to shoot less—or at least stop and ask a few smart questions first.

This unsustainable status quo—which sees a dozen or so such deadly police shootings every week, justifiable ones and unjustifiable ones—would come crumbling down even sooner by dint of law and policy if there were in place a meaningful, consistent way to ensure the collection and dissemination of reliable statistics about police shootings. Right now, in our age of instant information, there is none. Here is what the FBI’s Comey said in February about the absurdity of that: 

The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us. “Data” seems a dry and boring word but, without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better.

How can we address concerns about “use of force,” how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.

The FBI tracks and publishes the number of “justifiable homicides” reported by police departments. But, again, reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all. Without complete and accurate data, we are left with “ideological thunderbolts.” And that helps spark unrest and distrust and does not help us get better.

The battle over police shootings thus isn’t just a fight about the substance of the deadly policies and training that encourage officers to blast away. It isn’t just about how biases and prejudices infect police work or how prosecutors and grand juries and judges and prosecutors enable injustice by broadening police immunity. The battle over police shootings also will become, if it isn’t already, a procedural battle over the nature and extent of government transparency and bureaucracy. It will become a battle over who keeps records and who shares them and when. And the substantive battle won’t be won unless that procedural battle first is joined and won.

There is no excuse for local law enforcement officials not to keep clear track of police shooting cases and accurately report it to a central clearinghouse (as, indeed, two senators suggested on Tuesday). There is no excuse for politicians to enact or defend laws that shield such information from public view. There is no excuse for bureaucratic obfuscation with people dying in the streets, at an average rate of two per day. The sooner these statistics are gathered and produced, the sooner all of us will understand the scope of the problem. And the sooner we do that the better chance we’ll have of fixing it. This concept and this hope, I think, are contained somewhere in the Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was released in March. And if they are not they should be. 

(Photo: Bret Myers/ Youth Radio)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.