DOJ Finally Going To Force Law Enforcement Agencies To Hand Over Info On People Killed By Police Officers

from the better-late-than-never dept

At long last, the federal government is getting serious about tracking the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers.

For most of the last two decades, the DOJ has been collecting this information from local law enforcement agencies, but only on a voluntary basis. As a result, the federal numbers have nearly no relation to the real numbers — which have been compiled by a handful of private actors, including The Guardian, a UK-based journalistic entity.

Last June, legislators introduced a bill (that promptly went nowhere) which would replace voluntary reporting with mandatory reporting. The FBI expressed its concern about the government’s inability to collect accurate information on citizens killed by police officers, offering on multiple occasions to replace its voluntary system with a better voluntary system.

The Guardian is reporting that the voluntary system is finally being replaced with something that will create actual accountability.

Police departments will be required to give the US justice department full details of deadly incidents involving their officers each quarter, under a new government system for counting killings by police that was influenced by the Guardian.

Announcing a new program for documenting all “arrest-related deaths”, federal officials said they would actively work to confirm fatal cases seen in media reports and other open sources rather than wait for departments to report them voluntarily.

This still lets local PDs off the hook in terms of immediate self-reporting. But that’s probably ok, as there’s nothing in the reporting of deaths at the hands of police officers that encourages urgency or transparency from law enforcement agencies. With the feds independently verifying reported deaths — i.e., those reported by journalists — delays between reports and their addition to the federal numbers will be decreased dramatically.

Law enforcement agencies aren’t completely off the hook, however. They’ll still be required to report in custody deaths to the Justice Department. The difference is that the DOJ will no longer wait around for agencies to self-report. Local agencies heavily reliant on federal funding will probably be the agencies filling out these reports the fastest.

In their Federal Register article, officials cited their authority under the death in custody reporting act – a law that states local departments must report all deaths in custody to the justice department or lose 10% of their federal funding. The law has been largely ignored since being reauthorized in December 2014.

The other change of note is that this will no longer be a year-end tabulation after all the self-reporting is completed. Agencies can fill out one form for 2016’s total deaths, but going forward will be required to hand these in quarterly.

Agencies will also be responsible for collecting a lot of data they’ve never had to previously. Details about the deadly incident will need to be provided, along with demographic data on the deceased. Coroners and medical examiners serving law enforcement agencies will also need to turn over information to the government and will be asked to confirm local news reports on officer-involved deaths.

This is a huge step forward for a federal agency that has long relied on voluntary reporting from compliant law enforcement agencies to tabulate the use of deadly force by officers. It’s a sign that the federal government finally realizes the good people in law enforcement can’t be relied on to hand over data on incidents that make them look less that perfect on a voluntary basis. Targeting federal funding is a smart move because that’s the sort of money that gets spent on surveillance tools and 1033 acquisitions that agencies normally couldn’t afford without it.

The real test will come when it’s implemented, as it often takes more than federal mandates to alter entrenched cultures where accountability and transparency are considered weaknesses.

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Comments on “DOJ Finally Going To Force Law Enforcement Agencies To Hand Over Info On People Killed By Police Officers”

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40 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

It’ll help get a more accurate number of people killed by police, which is really good and needed, but it won’t do anything to hold police accountable for those deaths/murders. The system isn’t suddenly going to see there’s official numbers saying the police killed 1000 unarmed people in a year and decide it’s actually going to start to prosecute them. That’s where the real work needs to be done.

Skeeter says:

Re: Re:

Actually, the number is far higher than 1000. With approximately 11,000 firearms deaths per year now reported to the FBI, there is also little detail to differentiate an 89-year old grandmother from shooting a would-be rapist in her house at 1:00AM from that of a convenience store robber shooting the clerk (and almost NO police-related deaths of any ilk, accidental bystander or intentional felon) are reported at all.

We (Americans) keep wanting to polarize this ‘death by firearms’ debate to push disarming the public, but in reality, with almost 350-million population, we have 3x more automobile deaths per year than we do firearm deaths. We are determined to pick the fruit at the top of the tree first, before we go for that ‘low-hanging easy stuff’ – and most who want the 2nd Amendment protected want to know why the government wants to scare the liberal sheep and drive such ‘disarmament’ efforts so ferociously?

A great YouTube video addresses this with a group of gun-control supporting Senators by the interviewer asking them directly, ‘Ok, if you support gun control, will you put this banner in your home’s front yard?’ (holds up a ‘This house is a firearm-free home’ sign). The Senator stumbles, twice, then says, ‘uh, I can’t say…probably not…it might draw unwanted attention’.

That says it all – they want YOU disarmed, not everyone in the nation (their Secret Service will still be packing full-automatics). If it’s such a great, safe idea to be protected by armed bodyguards, then why can’t the people be armed? It’s about control and power, silly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure how you can claim that trying the US is trying to “pick the fruit at the top of the tree first” and then refer to traffic fatalities as “low-hanging easy stuff.”

Even since 1975 the US has made tremendous strides in reducing traffic fatalities. The number of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles traveled in 1975 was 3.35. In 2013 this number is now 1.08. Regulations and safety requirements have essentially cut traffic fatalities to a third of what they once were. This area is no longer “low-hanging easy stuff” — they have spent a lot of money and effort to get automobile deaths down to the point where they are now.

A look at traffic fatalities compared to gun deaths for the US, UK, Australia, and Canada in 2013 (all data retrieved from the respective governments)

US Traffic: 32,719 US Gun: 11,419 Traffic/Gun = 2.87
UK Traffic: 1,901 UK Gun: 58 Traffic/Gun = 32.78
Aus Traff : 1193 Aus Gun: 208 Traffic/Gun = 5.74
Can Traff : 1923 Can Gun: 131 Traffic/Gun = 14.68

You can argue that our ratio (US) is so low because:
1) we’ve spent so much time and attention on traffic rules and automobile safety that our traffic fatalities are much lower (per capita or miles driven) than other countries, or
2) you can assume that most traffic rules and auto safety regulations are similar between the countries and we haven’t spent time and effort trying to rein in gun deaths.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 the US has made tremendous strides in reducing traffic fatalities.

The same cannot be said for guns. “Gun safety” always was, and remains, an oxymoron.

Kind of like “knife safety”. There’s a reason they don’t allow them on airplanes or in many government buildings. Get rid of knives!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Puzzled officer lament

Kim Dotcom might beg to differ. He was quite rich before the RIAA/MPAA encouraged the DOJ to have the New Zealand police perform a radically excessive raid on his property. He is now a pauper. His riches were not enough because he did not have the right political connections. Your statement would be better phrased as “Only well-connected lives matter.” Some rich are well-connected in the right political circles, and most well-connected are rich, but being rich is insufficient.

Anonymous Coward says:

A good first step

This is the first step and long overdue. It’s unthinkable that civilian deaths have not been tracked on the federal level when it’s been proven there are rogue departments. Now maybe based on the figures, an investigation can take place rather than based on protest and outrage as it is now. I don’t think any police dept would want to see themselves at the bottom, nor would voters.

Groaker (profile) says:

Tool

A firearm is just another tool. For me it is good to scare off bears, coyotes, two legged thugs, and other animals which can be hostile and dangerous.

It is very nice of people who live in cities and suburbs are willing to put my life and that of my family in danger by arguing that firearms can be replaced by the police. First, the police take 20 minutes or more to get here, and secondly it appears that the police are even more dangerous than large carnivores.

While I do not hunt, others in my area are poor enough to really need the extra protein that hunting and fishing bring in. Having spent my career in Public Health, I have seen far too many infants and children that were suffering from malnutrition. To take away the food brought in by hunting would be another crippling and disabling blow to children and expecting mothers.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Roar of a paper tiger

While it’s nice that they bothered to include a penalty that might actually get police to pay attention, a cut in federal funding, I imagine most of them would be willing to accept a 10% loss in funding if it meant not having to be upfront about how many people seem to die any time their officers are in the area.

There’s also the problem pointed out by the first commentor, having the data means absolutely squat if those with the power to hold the police accountable have absolutely no interest in doing so, and I doubt more ‘timely’ reporting is going to change that in the slightest.

It sounds nice and all, but this is something that should have been in place and enforced decades ago, pushing it forward now just comes across as an empty gesture meant to try and paper over the fact that for decades the government basically let the police do whatever they wanted without intervention, and with no accountability or even interest in it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Roar of a paper tiger

While it’s nice that they bothered to include a penalty that might actually get police to pay attention, a cut in federal funding, I imagine most of them would be willing to accept a 10% loss in funding if it meant not having to be upfront about how many people seem to die any time their officers are in the area.

There may be great truth in that.

There’s also the problem pointed out by the first commentor, having the data means absolutely squat if those with the power to hold the police accountable have absolutely no interest in doing so, and I doubt more ‘timely’ reporting is going to change that in the slightest.

Not sure about that. Unless the FBI decides to bury the information by either questionably legitimate (national security, e.g.) or completely illegitimate (no responsive records, or not searching the right database, e.g.) means,
someone might could use that information to demonstrate that a given department has a serious problem on its hands. See here, for explanation. I believe the technical term is “disparate treatment”

It sounds nice and all, but this is something that should have been in place and enforced decades ago, pushing it forward now just comes across as an empty gesture meant to try and paper over the fact that for decades the government basically let the police do whatever they wanted without intervention, and with no accountability or even interest in it.

Sad, but true.

DB (profile) says:

Why quarterly reports?

Why are reports quarterly?

Do we really expect that police-involved deaths are so common that the reports need to batch up the incidents?

It would be much more reasonable for a report to be required within a short period (two weeks) of the death. I’m not a proponent of additional paperwork, but it doesn’t seem unreasonably burdensome to document someone’s death.

TRX (profile) says:

There are something like 12,000 police jurisdictions in the United States. They don’t work for the Department of Justice; they work for, and are authorized by, their own local governments. If they’re not bound by any contracts via taking Federal money, the Fed has no means of compelling them to make reports, or to do anything at all, for at matter.

If the Feds want to compel reporting they might be better off doing it through the judiciary via the DAs’ offices and courts.

Otherwise, if they want that data, they can send Men In Black out to every station or courthouse, examine the records, and compile it for themselves. Which might not be a bad thing, since the DOJ appears to have an excess of bureaucratic drones in need of something useful to do.

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