THE BLOG
12/11/2012 12:28 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

Why Are There No Good Data On Police Use Of Force?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently ran an editorial praising a new program by University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David Klinger that will track, analyze the city's police-involved shootings. This comes on the heels of a study Klinger authored on the same topic finding that the city had improved the way it investigates police shootings, but that the police department is still too opaque about those investigations.

This is pretty typical, as is the fact that attempts to make the department more transparent about officer-involved shootings has been strongly opposed by the police union. Last year, an investigative series Las Vegas Review-Journal found that officer shootings were always deemed justified, even in cases where they pretty clearly weren't. That led to a federal civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. The DOJ report, released last month, came down hard on the city.

It's been the same story in other cities. See Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Portland, and a host of other places.

It could well be that most or even nearly all officer-involved shootings really are justified. The problem is that when police departments shut down the flow of information, when cops are in charge of investigating other cops, and when the blue code is still openly embraced and enforced, few outside of law enforcement are going to trust the integrity of these investigations.

And as the Post-Dispatch notes, there's a bigger national problem, here. Later this month or early next month, you'll see a slate of stories about the 2012 police officer fatalities start to pop up in the media. Both private police groups and the FBI keep close statistics on the number of cops killed and assaulted while on the job.* Won't you won't see is a slate of stories about the number of citizens killed by police in 2012. Those data just don't exist at a national level. Here's the New York Times, back in 2001:

Despite widespread public interest and a provision in the 1994 Crime Control Act requiring the attorney general to collect the data and publish an annual report on them, statistics on police shootings and use of nondeadly force continue to be piecemeal products of spotty collection, and are dependent on the cooperation of local police departments. No comprehensive accounting for all the nation's 17,000 police departments exists.

The problem is that while the 1994 law requires federal government to compile data on policing shootings, there's no requirement that police departments actually provide them. And so most don't.

Ten years after that NYT report, the Las Vegas paper ran into the same problem:

Governments are usually obsessed with statistics, compiling data on virtually everything, including crime, health care, education and the economy.

But if you're interested in detailed data on police shootings, or on how many people have been killed by police, your search will not be simple. A Review-Journal investigation of officer-involved shootings and police use of deadly force found no one tracks such incidents on a national basis.

"We don't have a mandate to do that," said William Carr, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which collects crime data from every corner of the country . . .

"It would take a request from Congress for us to collect that data," said Mr. Carr of the FBI, adding that budgetary constraints would likely prevent the collection of detailed data on police shootings.

That's a red herring. Police already track everything from domestic violence to child abuse to murder, and police routinely lobby state and federal lawmakers to put new crimes into statute. The budgetary impact of adding another reporting category to local police forces would be minuscule. The social impact of such an addition, however, would be huge.

The absence of such a reporting mandate creates the appearance of protecting police from scrutiny. It would be instructive to see how the public safety lobby would respond to a bill that requires the FBI to collect and report data about police shootings.

My guess is that they'd be aggressively opposed, as they have been to most efforts to bring transparency to policing. And when the major law enforcement interest groups aggressively oppose something, Congress rarely finds the backbone to take them on.

The same problem exists with statistics on any other police use of force--they simply don't exist. I've tried to accumulate official data on the way police departments use their SWAT teams and similar paramilitary police units--how often they're deployed, for what reasons, how many times they raid the wrong address, and so on. Not only does that data not exist at the national level, only Maryland requires police departments to report it at the state level. (And that Maryland law--passed after the botched police raid on Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo--was opposed by every police agency and interest group in the state.)

And so as the federal government continues to give local police agencies military guns and vehicles, grants to buy more military guns and vehicles, grants to start SWAT teams and tactical task forces, and grants to hire more cops, the feds really make no effort to see what sort of effect all of that is having on how and how often police use force and violence against American citizens.

The net result of all of this is a one-way flow of information that probably colors the way we think about the relationship between police and the communities they serve. When we get comprehensive data each year about the cops who were killed and assaulted in the line of duty over the last 12 months, but no data on how many people were killed and assaulted by police--justifiably or not--over the same period, it bends the debate toward more support for giving cops more power, more weapons, and more authority.

Now maybe that is what we need to do. But we ought to make the decision with a full set of data, not a set that highlights citizen violence against government employees, but ignores government violence against citizens.

(*As I noted earlier this year, it's likely that this will be the safest year for police officers since the 1950s.)