The U.S. Department of Justice’s Thursday announcement that it would provide comprehensive data on police killings starting in early 2017 is one that civil rights groups have long called for.
But some say it is not enough.
“Although comprehensive data collection is necessary to understand this crisis and the impact it is having on families and communities of color, data alone will not prevent these violent and unjustified attacks,” Jadine Johnson, staff attorney with the Advancement Project, said in an emailed statement to Rewire. “We urge the Justice Department to implement policies that will hold police officers accountable who use excessive force and who disproportionately target people of color.”
Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), took issue with the plan for a new pilot program so close to November’s presidential election.
“It’s disappointing that the Department of Justice wants to get serious about data collection and reporting with about 100 days left in this administration,” she said in an email to Rewire. “We absolutely need data on deaths in custody and nonfatal uses of force so that we have a clear understanding of the problems and can begin fixing them. But we are not going to get data with the voluntary reporting that the Department of Justice describes.”
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“It’s way too long coming,” said Chris Burbank, retired Salt Lake City police chief and director of law enforcement engagement at the Center for Policing Equity, in an interview with Rewire.
Police departments have collected such data for years, but it should be consistent throughout the country and publicly available for independent analyses, Burbank said.
“I want there to be the same standards everywhere, whether it’s in New York or L.A., in evaluation of force,” he said. “I am very much in favor of it and think it is a step in the right direction.”
The first-of-its-kind plan calls for “accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement” that “is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in an online statement Thursday. “The initiatives we are announcing today are vital efforts toward increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve. In the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work alongside our local, state, tribal and federal partners to ensure that we put in place a system to collect data that is comprehensive, useful and responsive to the needs of the communities we serve.”
Some media outlets have created databases chronicling police killings. The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database counts 991 people fatally shot by police last year, and 754 so far this year.
The Justice Department’s multi-year plan involves various offices and projects, including the Police Data Initiative, of which the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office has assumed leadership. The data transparency project was initiated by the White House in 2015. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is developing a National Use of Force Data Collection, which began last year. Under the 2014 Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) issued a draft proposal this summer outlining a plan to collect death-in-custody data from state and local law enforcement agencies. And the attorney general has issued a memorandum to federal law enforcement agencies formally notifying them of their reporting obligations under the DCRA and directing them to BJS for further coordination.
COPS assessed the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) at the city’s request. A 414-page report released October 12 found that the SFPD disproportionately targets people of color and made 272 recommendations to improve it, according to a Colorlines article.
The Baltimore, Milwaukee, and St. Louis County police departments are also using this program to assess themselves, according to Colorlines‘ reporting.
Lynch’s announcement comes three weeks after members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) marched to the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., demanding an investigation into police killings of unarmed Black men, women, and children.
“One is too many,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), chair of the caucus, told reporters outside the Justice Department on September 22, calling for action from state and federal authorities and for the executive and legislative branches to have “a national standard regarding the use of lethal force” and to put the “full weight of the federal government behind the elimination of unlawful police shootings.”
The new initiative answers the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing call 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,” according to a Justice Department news release.
DCRA required local police departments to report fatal interactions. The new Justice Department plan will depend on police departments to voluntarily report non-lethal encounters, officials said.
The 2014 law reporting in-custody deaths allows the attorney general to impose financial penalties on states that do not report data, but as Kanya Bennett of the ACLU pointed out, the Justice Department does not explain how that would pan out under the new plan.
“The federal government gives millions to states and departments for policing and it must start taking away money from those who do not want to collect and report data on police community encounters,” she said.
“Comprehensive data collection will confirm what communities of color have been experiencing for decades. Far too often, they are targeted, brutalized and murdered by those acting under the color of law at disproportionate rates,” said Jadine Johnson from the Advancement Project.