Two years ago, as American media outlets began to realize the story of police brutality in America wasn’t just confined to Ferguson, Missouri, journalists started to look for context in data that seemed like it should be readily available.
How often do American police officers kill people? Do officers kill a disproportionate number of black Americans?
But this data, it turned out, wasn’t recorded in any national database. The FBI’s statistics on police killings were (and are) so appallingly incomplete, they are unusable.
Starting next year, the FBI will attempt to change that.
Accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an announcement last week. The initiatives we are announcing today are vital efforts toward increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.”
The FBI will launch a pilot program in 2017 to collect data on police use of force, including fatal and nonfatal shootings by police.
The database would be the first of its kind for the department, though it wouldn’t be the first to track deadly interactions civilians have with police officers.
As media outlets realized no complete database of police killings in the United States existed, The Washington Post and The Guardian decided to build databases of their own.
Using slightly different methodologies (The Washington Post tracks officer-involved shooting deaths, while The Guardian tracks officer-involved deaths of any kind), the outlets built upon the work of independent journalists such as Brian Burghart to provide context to ever-changing and evolving stories of police brutality across the country.
The Huffington Post, too, recently published a database to track jail deaths throughout the country.
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,” FBI Director James Comey said during a 2015 summit geared toward reducing violent crime. You can get online and figure out how many tickets were sold to The Martian … the CDC can do the same with the flu.”
“Its ridiculous,” he continued, “embarrassing and ridiculous, that we cant talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.
The FBI’s database won’t be comprehensive when it starts, but the DOJ’s announcement indicates that its ambitions go beyond just tracking fatal police interactions.
The database will also track civilian interactions with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.