A Major Step Backwards
If anyone were interested in learning facts on police use of force, they would likely look to FBI statistics. Unfortunately, they would be disappointed. Each year for the past several decades, as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, the FBI published figures on civilians killed in interactions with police officers. In 2015, the Washington Post created a national database tracking citizens fatally shot by police. The Post utilized media reports from across the country for its database. The effort by the Washington Post found the FBI figures a gross under-count with the Post’s figures nearly doubling the number of civilians killed by the police when compared to the figures reported to the FBI.
This finding left police professionals in the uncomfortable position of relying on the Washington Post for accurate data. on what arguably is the most important facet of policing. In reaction, in 2019, the FBI started collecting use of force data in its own newly created database program. After two years, just over 50% of police departments are participating. Now, due to lack of participation in the program by police departments, the federal Office of Management and Budget is threatening to shut the program down. OMB set a 60% police department participation rate to ensure quality information and despite outreach by the FBI, the national police department participation rate appears stuck in the low fifties percent.
While some police officials have claimed participation in the FBI program is bureaucratically unwieldy, that seems an overstatement. Under the program, departments are to report
• The death of a person due to law enforcement use of force.
• The serious bodily injury of a person due to law enforcement use of force.
• The discharge of a firearm by law enforcement at or in the direction of a person not otherwise resulting in death or serious bodily injury.
Data requested does NOT include specifics about cases, disclose the names of people involved, or provide opinions on whether uses of force were justified. The only other information requested is the gender, race, and ethnicity of subject(s) and whether the officer(s) was on duty or injured. If the department has no incidents meeting any of the three criteria, they simply make a zero report which takes only seconds.
Loss of this database would be a blow to the national effort to understand the dimensions of police use of force. It also reflects poorly on policing as a profession when accurate information on police force is available, not through government study and oversight, but through media reports.
The FBI publishes a list of police departments who have enrolled in the program. That list is here.
What can we do? First, If the police department in your area is not listed, contact them and urge them to participate. Second, contact the OMB and ask them to delay any action on the database, giving police departments more time to enroll.