Incidents of police killing unarmed people of color have made national headlines, leading to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The magnitude of these incidents have been heightened by pictures and videos shared on social media. Yet despite the public’s interest in this topic, until recently little good data was available to study the prevalence of police violence in America. Over the past couple years there has been a renewed focus on data and technology that aims to educate, provide transparency, and even warn about potential police abuses in the United States.
The model that was supposed to establish a reporting program for data quantifying the occurrence of police violence against civilians was established in the 1990s. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (“Crime Act”) mandated that the Justice Department gather data about the “use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and include it in an annual report made public.[i] The method in which the Justice Department was to collect data and the factors they would comprise, however, were not stated in the Crime Act.[ii] Due to this ambiguity (and other political factors) this report has not been consistently issued.[iii]
One of the main problems in publishing this data is that the responsibility for collecting it is split among local departments. There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the country, most of which contain fewer than 25 officers.[iv] Furthermore, to the extent a department does have the resources to report such data, there is no standard methodology or required inputs that the Justice Department requires. Factors such as the race of the victim, the circumstances in which an incident occurred, and the level of force are not always recorded.[v]
Non-governmental groups including media outlets in recent years have attempted to supplement this model by aggregating both public and private data on police violence:
www.mappingpoliceviolence.com attempts to aggregate data from a variety of sources
- UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity has established the National Justice Database to track national policing behavior including stops and use of force. To date, more than 40 police departments participate covering over 25% of Americans.[vi]
- Websites like www.mappingpoliceviolence.com and www.checkthepolice.org aggregate data from a variety of sources to publicize the magnitude of the problem. These sites merge incomplete agency data with other sources like Facebook, local obituaries, and even previous arrest records to compile racial breakdowns in violent confrontations with police.[vii] [viii]
- In 2015, both The Guardian and The Washington Post began to publish data on police killings. Yet these two news outlets show variability in their findings. In 2016 through the date of this note, The Washington Post reported 843 people killed by police while the Guardian reported 931. [ix] [x]
The Washington Post (left) and the Guardian (right) show different numbers of police killings in 2016.
While the efforts of these organizations have helped, there is still a public need for accurate statistics. Trying to enhance the broken model established in the Crime Act, the Obama Administration launched the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, leading to the Police Data Initiative (“PDI”).[xi] The PDI will use technology and enhanced data gathering techniques to increase transparency into policing across the nation. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the PDI aims to establish an “early warning system to identify problems, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate use of force.” Some of the goals of the PDI include:
- Releasing previously privately held department data
- Creating a public safety open data portal that will serve as a central database and clearinghouse for police data
- Building new software and technology with private institutions to be distributed to local departments
- Developing an “Open Data Playbook” for agencies to use to review standard best practices and case studies
- Further research into the use and benefits of cameras in cars and body cameras on police to increase transparency.[xii]
Thus far the PDI covers 53 jurisdictions encompassing 41 million people and has produced over 90 datasets for public consumption.[xiii]
President Obama speaking to the press after a meeting with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing
Unfortunately, while the PDI is a good step in fixing the current model of reporting and publishing statistics on police violence against civilians, it is not yet sufficient. Because it was launched through a task force and not by an act of Congress, there is no assurance it will continue through future administrations. A congressional attempt to help with this known as the PRIDE Act has been stalled in committee for over a year and would just shift the burden for reporting data to the states.[xiv]
It is a shame that in a world of data, statistics on how often people of color are killed by police are not easily found. Digital technology from the PDI and work by non-governmental organizations are good starts, but without full federal support, they face challenges in accessibility and accuracy. With the current state of congressional gridlock, it does not seem likely to be fixed anytime soon.
[v] http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/podcast-we-still-rely-on-volunteers-to-tally-the-victims-of-police-violence/ (and the associated podcast).