October 17, 2016; Christian Science Monitor and CNN

During the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, two, then three high profile law enforcement officials addressed the proposition that police target and kill African American males. FBI Director James Comey and International Association of Chiefs of Police President and current Chief of Police in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Terrence M. Cunningham, weighed in at diverging ends of the spectrum. Comey, with a deep base of litigation and corporate counsel experience, commented that the data collected is not sufficient to come to that conclusion. “It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct, by images of possible misconduct, by images of perceived misconduct.”

This narrative forces a wedge between law enforcement and the public, at times keeping “good officers in their car,” Comey added. (Previous comments were fairly well received, but that, by all accounts was a dud.) Black communities are looking for strategies that work.

It is unacceptable,” Comey continued, “that the public cannot get information from their own government” as to whether black people are more likely than white people to be shot during police encounters. “In the absence of information, we have anecdotes, we have videos, we have good people believing something terrible is happening.”

Police body cams and cell phone videos have captured some of these lethal confrontations and their aftermath. “In a nation of almost one million sworn law enforcement officers, and tens of millions of police encounters every year, a small group of videos serves as proof of an epidemic.”

Comey did moderate his stance a few days later, adding, “I’m not trying to debunk anything, except to say I hope all of us want actual information about what’s going on, whatever that will show.”

Data is always a two-way street between those who collect and interpret and those impacted. Ideally, before making determinations, both sides should wait for conclusive data. But that data may never come. Meanwhile, affected communities respond immediately to perceived injustice. Comey told the police chiefs of the need for more accurate information—or, more accurately, of their need to provide it. Since his appointment, he has tried to get law enforcement to report statistics on officer-involved shootings. Now, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has risen to the challenge. On Thursday, Lynch announced a Department of Justice pilot program to expand collection of use-of-force data from police departments in 2017. It is not clear which cities or departments the pilot would cover.

Current federal law requires police to report interactions in which individuals die. The new program would expand this to include injuries, firearm discharges, and other uses of force. It is vitally important to have access to this expanded data, but if the FBI currently collects use-of-force data where individuals die, that is an important beginning, and one of which communities could take advantage.

In 2013, there were 109 officers killed—fewer than in any year since 1956, according to the National LEO Memorial Fund. Even with the uptick in officer deaths in 2014 and 2015, when 122 and 123 officers were killed, respectively, the numbers remained below average compared to the past several decades.

Director Comey and Attorney General Lynch both believe more robust national statistics are necessary. In response to the lack of a national database on police use-of-force incidents, the Washington Post tracked people fatally shot by American police, counting 761 deaths so far this year. The UK publication, the Guardian, counts 849 deaths in American police custody this year.

Chief Cunningham, with over thirty-two years as a police officer, issued an extraordinary apology with this statement.

While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future…For our part, the first step is for law enforcement and the IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.

This was not merely Cunningham’s view; it was made on behalf of the entire association. It was surprising because of its acknowledgment of history, sociology, and the precarious relationship between law enforcement and the black community. His speech included the following comments:

  • There have been times when law enforcement officers because of the laws enacted by federal, state and local governments have been the face of oppression to far too many of our fellow citizens.
  • In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.
  • We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities. For our part, the first step in this process is for the law enforcement profession and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.
  • Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
  • Many officers who do not share this common heritage often struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust often unable to bridge this gap and connect with some segments of their communities.

Reactions were mixed. Activists recognized the urgent need for better data collection. They also agreed with his comment that this was “a first step.” The Rev. Al Sharpton appreciated the apology but said he’d be on the lookout for words “backed by action” that would protect communities and residents from police racial bias. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund advised, “Some next steps: require anti-bias training; discipline officers who engage in bias policing.” Daunasia Yancey, representative of Black Lives Matter in Boston, said last month that African Americans have every right to protest and point out racially biased police behavior. Her view is that “this ‘war on cops’ rhetoric is unjustified and merely another way to protect police from accountability.”

Existing data underscores this lack of justification that there is a “war on cops.” “It’s not even half right that cops are at war with black America, and it’s not even half right that there’s a war on cops, in any big or broad sense,” retired New York police detective Edward Conlon told NPR. “The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that 102 officers have been killed this year in the United States as of October 1st, including five officers killed by a sniper in Dallas. That’s an increase of 9 percent over the same period last year. But the recent uptick is relatively small compared to the decades-long downward trend in police deaths.”—Mary Frances Mitchner