Legal Issues

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
data, doj, information, police, shootings



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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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2016 @ 6:36pm

    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.

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