Gov't Accountability Office Says FBI Should Probably Just Give Up The Use Of Force Reporting It Never Bothered Doing

from the waste-not,-left-still-wanting dept

In 1994, Congress passed a law (the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) that ordered the Department of Justice to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and publish an annual report. The DOJ immediately handed this responsibility off to the International Association for Chiefs of Police, which produced a single report in 2001 and has done nothing since.

The problem was the process was entirely voluntary. And it doesn’t appear that, outside an act of Congress, it can be changed. The DOJ does not directly oversee any state or local law enforcement agencies. The involvement of the IACP might have encouraged more participation if the IACP was interested in participating in this data gathering, but the facts speak for themselves. There’s nothing in this for law enforcement. And since no one can force law enforcement to send the DOJ use-of-force data, participation by the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies (as of 2015) was as low as 3%.

In 2015, as excessive force deployment and killings by police officers repeatedly gained national attention, the FBI declared itself the hero and rode to the rescue, promising a new, better, still-entirely-voluntary use-of-force database. This time it offered a carrot — federal funds — in exchange for information. It did better than the previous (lack of) effort, managing to gather data from nearly than a third of US law enforcement agencies.

Better than nothing, I suppose. But that’s the thing: it’s still nothing. The FBI has gathered this hugely imperfect data set from a smallish group of self-reporters. And it has done nothing with the data. The annual reporting has never materialized. Thanks to this wealth of inactivity, the FBI and DOJ may soon be able to give up this responsibility — one they clearly never wanted. It won’t be because it can’t be made to work. It will be because no one wants to put in the work. And it may also be because the Government Accountability Office is suggesting the DOJ stop spending tax dollars on work it clearly isn’t doing.

[D]ue to insufficient participation by law enforcement agencies, the FBI has not met thresholds set by the Office of Management and Budget for publishing use of force data or continuing the effort past December 2022. Further, as of February 2021, the FBI had not assessed alternative data collection strategies.

That’s from the summary of the GAO report. The full report [PDF] goes into more detail, but the conclusion is still foregone: the DOJ never wanted to do this and has spent most of three decades not doing it. The failures found by the GAO aren’t the result of the DOJ and FBI struggling mightily and still coming up short. It’s a mandate the DOJ received in 1994 and immediately abandoned. The 2015 effort was mostly PR — an attempt to show the federal government cared enough about police violence to at least try to tally it up. And the FBI put in all the effort that empty promise required.

Here’s the half-assery the GAO observed. Both the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics) and the FBI were supposed to collect and publish data. Here’s what the BJS managed to do with its time, energy, and personnel over the past half-decade:

[O]ver the 5-year period from fiscal year 2016 through fiscal year 2020, BJS published results from this survey twice. Further, one of those publications was a retrospective report of previously published data that were collected from 2002 through 2011.

Confronted with this failure, the BJS asked the GAO if it had tried looking somewhere else for the data the BJS was supposed to be publishing. The GAO looked and said that’s not even the same thing.

BJS officials also stated that the Law Enforcement Management and Statistics Survey was another means through which DOJ published required data on excessive force. However, BJS publishes information on policies and procedures related to officers’ use of force collected through this survey, but does not publish any information specifically on excessive force by law enforcement officers.

A total lack of effort by everyone involved. The DOJ said the FBI collected the information (but did not publish it) and claimed that ended the DOJ’s involvement — a strange assertion for an agency directly overseeing the FBI to say. Stranger still, the FBI said it had not been informed this was its job, despite making two public announcements (2015 and 2019) saying it would be doing these things.

To ensure Americans were deprived of any useful info about excessive force deployment, the FBI deliberately made a mess of the data given to it by a small percentage of law enforcement agencies.

According to FBI documentation, the National Use-of-Force Data Collection does not differentiate between incidents involving reasonable force and incidents involving excessive force. Specifically, the collection does not contain information on whether officers followed their department’s policy or acted lawfully in any given incident. Therefore, it is unclear how DOJ could use these data to publish a summary on excessive force by law enforcement officers.

And again, another failure to do the things asked of it by the FBI.

In addition, the FBI began collecting these data in 2019 and has not yet published any use of force incident data collected through the program…

As was noted above, the FBI and DOJ have no backup plan. If their original effort didn’t work, the solution appears to be to let it die. The GAO says no alternative efforts have been considered to ensure greater collection or more frequent publication. (Or, indeed, ANY publication of collected data.) The proposals the GAO heard from these entities suggest officials were just making stuff up on the spot.

When you’re concerned about which agencies might be engaging in more deadly/excessive force than others (as was partially the point of this database), a random sample and some extrapolation is going to provide cover for agencies with endemic problems and paint an unrealistic picture about law enforcement force deployment.

The FBI’s business plan for the collection states that using a sample of agencies may be a potential alternative data collection mechanism.

At this point, the FBI only has a “sample of agencies.” The collection has never approached 100% of the nation’s law enforcement agencies. At best, it has managed to collect police killing data from 55% of these agencies. When it comes to force deployment, the percentage is much lower.

Just to drive home the point once more: no one in the DOJ wanted to do this job. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published 130 reports from 2016 to 2020. Total number of use-of-force reports during that same time period? One.

The good news for those people who spent years not doing what they were paid to do? They won’t have to not do it much longer.

[T]he collection itself may be discontinued as soon as the end of 2022.

That’s the way the FBI wants it. No news is good news. Or, at the very least, its news that can’t be disputed by data it barely collected and never published. All that’s left is the public perception of law enforcement force deployment — something that definitely hasn’t improved over the past five years. The nation’s law enforcement agencies — including those at the federal level — have managed to rack up nearly thirty years of non-participation trophies. Never investigating the problem means never having to confront the problem. And if you screw around long enough, people will stop asking you to do stuff you don’t want to do.

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Comments on “Gov't Accountability Office Says FBI Should Probably Just Give Up The Use Of Force Reporting It Never Bothered Doing”

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6 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Conflict of interest much?

There were just so many problems with the idea from the get-go, from the fact that reporting the numbers was entirely optional and the police had a vested interest in those numbers not being recorded to the the agencies involved likewise having no interest in anything that might make the police look bad and since honest numbers would definitely do that…

The point may have been to pay lip-service towards showing the scope of the problem and it certainly did that, just probably not in the way that it was originally intended.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Conflict of interest much?

But it allows lawmakers to say they heard the complaints and did something, its not THEIR fault the law they wrote was filled with escape clauses & loopholes.
By the midterms their constituents were patting themselves on the back that they had solved the issue & promptly forgot that reports should be coming because attention span of gnats.

harleynetinsnet says:

First things first

The very first thing you’d have to do is get the data sources (Federal, State and Local LEOs) to admit that there was actual excessive force deployed.

Even in egregious cases that resulted in criminal convictions, the initial response was "We don’t see a problem here."

Often that response is maintained after the conviction.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's the Metadata

This data is available independently from other sources, like the Washington Post, the national gun violence project, and the CDC WISQUARS fatal injury data. What’s most interesting is comparing the different data sources against each other to reveal the systemic biases in their underlying methodologies (media reports, death certificates, police reports). Which departments chose to participate in the FBI’s survey, and the accuracy of the data they provided is itself important data.

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