August 8, 2016; Guardian
After a few years of activists and the media commenting on the absurdity that the United States lacks a reliable central count of “arrest-related deaths,” the Department of Justice has just announced that it will from now on require all police departments and medical examiners to give the DOJ full accountings of deadly incidents involving police under their command. But on top of that, the DOJ will seek to confirm fatal cases seen in media reports and elsewhere. The article announcing the program cited the Guardian’s “The Counted” as an influence and a source.
The program is aimed at increasing transparency around the use of force by police and ensures proper accountability for the officers involved. “Accurate and comprehensive accounting of deaths that occur during the process of arrest is critical for law enforcement agencies to demonstrate responsiveness to the citizens and communities they serve,” reads the notice in the Federal Register.
This marks a real step forward from the annual count by the FBI of fatal shootings, which depends upon voluntary reports by departments and is estimated to count only around half of all deaths. The New York Times reports:
In 2014, for example, the Wall Street Journal gathered data on police shootings from 2007 to 2012 from 105 of the nation’s largest police agencies and compared it to the FBI’s statistics. It found that more than 550 police shootings were not included in the national database or were not attributed to the agency involved.
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is to implement the new system, which will employ a mixed methodology that casts a wider net and attempts to confirm details by comparing reports from various sources. It will also record not only shooting deaths, but also deaths caused by taser shocks and some vehicle crashes caused by law enforcement.
A trial run of the system monitored deaths between June 1st and August 31st of 2015. According to the announcement, police departments will be asked later this year to report once for all arrest-related deaths during 2016 before moving to a quarterly reporting process next year. One form, sent to each department, will list deaths already noted in media by other sources. The departments will be asked to confirm and correct that information and list any additional deaths. All departments will be required to report, even if only with an affirmative zero. This will be followed by a second form asking for details, including demographic information on victims, how the deadly encounter began, and whether the person was armed. Finally, a third form will be sent to the offices of medical examiners and coroners, asking them to confirm details and list any arrest related deaths not yet identified.
FBI director James Comey has been quoted calling it “ridiculous” that the Guardian and Washington Post have more information on arrest-related deaths than the FBI does. Officials are hopeful that this new “hybrid approach,” with some adjustments along the way, will yield much more accurate data for the public and criminal justice agencies and policymakers.
The New York Times says the notice does not address the reporting of killings by federal law enforcement agents, even though the Times reported in 2013 that the FBI had reviewed 150 cases of officer-involved shootings, dating to at least 1993, and found all officers without fault. The reporting on this was based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation.—Ruth McCambridge