Police Shootings Data Elusive

Published: August 21, 2014

Police Shootings Data Elusive, The shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., has exposed what the Justice Department doesn’t know about police use of force.

Federal officials don’t know how many police shootings take place annually. They don’t know how many citizens complaints get filed each year. And, despite a 1994 congressional order, they don’t tally annually the incidents of “excessive force” by police.

Many reasons account for the lack of comprehensive data, including the complexity of the reporting task. The absence of facts, though, can hinder efforts to diagnose and solve.

“That’s a clear, clear problem,” Matthew Hickman, associate professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, said in an interview Wednesday. “When it comes to use of force, we have almost nothing.”

Deadspin, an online sports news site, underscored the data shortcomings Wednesday by initiating what it bills as a crowd-sourced database of police shootings. Within the first five hours, data concerning 135 shooting incidents from the last several years had been entered.

But even when begun enthusiastically, data-collection ventures can fizzle over time. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for instance, at one point maintained a police shooting database. It has not been updated since 2001, the association said Wednesday.

“We need data to make decisions,” Alex R. Piquero, professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, said in an interview Wednesday. “Data should be the underpinning for everything we do.”

Lawmakers recognized the need for reliable information in 1994, when they passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As part of the 354-page package, Congress ordered that “the attorney general shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”

The 1994 law further directed the Justice Department to “publish an annual summary of the data acquired” concerning excessive force. The provision was inserted by senators, records show. At the time, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now the vice president of the United States.

The excessive force report requirement was one of a number of report obligations imposed on the Justice Department under the 1994 law. It left some key questions unanswered, including the definition of excessive force, even as it forced shorthanded researchers to manage with limited resources.

“The incidence of wrongful use of force by police is unknown. Research is critically needed,” the Bureau of Justice Statistics acknowledged in 1999, adding that “current indicators of excessive force, such as civilian complaints and civil lawsuits, are all critically flawed.”

Nonetheless, the annual reports required by Congress in the 1994 law were never produced.


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