Why Is It So Hard to Track Police Killings?

Why Is It So Hard to Track Police Killings?

In this April 4, 2015, frame from video provided by attorney L. Chris Stewart representing the family of Walter Lamer Scott, Scott lies face down at the feet of City Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager, right, in North Charleston, S.C. Slager was charged with murder Tuesday, April 7, hours after law enforcement officials viewed the dramatic video that appears to show him shooting a fleeing Scott several times in the back. (AP Photo/Courtesy of L. Chris Stewart)
In this April 4, 2015, frame from video provided by attorney L. Chris Stewart representing the family of Walter Lamer Scott, Scott lies face down at the feet of City Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager, right, in North Charleston, S.C. Slager was charged with murder Tuesday, April 7, hours after law enforcement officials viewed the dramatic video that appears to show him shooting a fleeing Scott several times in the back. (AP Photo/Courtesy of L. Chris Stewart)

 

(The Atlantic) – The recent spate of highly publicized killings of black men by police officers has driven many people to wonder how common such police violence is. Incredibly, no one knows—not even FBI Director James Comey. The federal government doesn’t track it, and until this week, no one else did either.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post and Guardian set out to catalogue the number of times people are killed by police—the Post focusing on firearms deaths, while The Guardian looked at all fatalities. They got the data by poring over news accounts, police reports, and other records, trying to get a full picture. Because they use different methods and track slightly different things, they also come up with two different totals—385 so far this year in the Post, 470 for The Guardian.

The federal government could theoretically compel local law enforcement to produce the information, guaranteeing reliable and uniform reporting. So why hasn’t it done so? Tracking and reporting these numbers provides an empirical basis for political debate, and shifts the focus from documenting the problem to proposing solutions.

Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey announced a bill Tuesday that tries to solve the problem. The Police Reporting Information, Data, and Evidence Act of 2015 (the name creates a ghastly backronym, the “PRIDE Act”) is a fairly straightforward bill: It creates grants to states and in return requires them to record and report to the Justice Department every case in which an officer shoots or causes serious bodily injury against a civilian, and every case in which a civilian shoots or causes serious bodily injury to an officer. They would also have to report basic demographic data for all victims. The text is short and simple.

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