FBI Director Says Not Changing Anything Will Let Them Track Police Shootings Better

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After years of not giving a damn and letting the public do its job for it, the FBI is apparently ready to get serious about collecting stats on “police-involved shootings.” In a statement released along with the FBI’s 2014 Crime Report (tl;dr: most crime down again), FBI director James Comey says the agency will be doing… something… to ensure more comprehensive reporting of citizens killed by police.

[T]o address the ongoing debate about the appropriate use of force by law enforcement, we plan to collect more data about shootings (fatal and nonfatal) between law enforcement and civilians, and to increase reporting overall. Currently, the UCR program collects the number of justifiable homicides reported by police as well as information about the felonious killing and assault of law enforcement officers. These data are available in Crime in the United States and Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted. As helpful as this information is, however, we need more law enforcement agencies to submit their justifiable homicide data so that we can better understand what is happening across the country. Once we receive this data, we will add a special publication that focuses on law enforcement’s use of force in shooting incidents that will outline facts about what happened, who was involved, the nature of injuries or deaths, and the circumstances behind these incidents. We hope this information will become part of a balanced dialogue in communities and in the media—a dialogue that will help to dispel misperceptions, foster accountability, and promote transparency in how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve.

There’s a lot not to like about this statement.

First off, the FBI is only now getting around to “addressing the debate,” after doing the bare minimum for the past several years. Currently, the data is “collected” via voluntary reports from law enforcement agencies and is limited to justifiable homicides, and then only those where someone was shot during the commission of a felony. This is why the FBI’s yearly totals are, at best, half of what’s tallied by private efforts.

Comey’s statement basically says nothing’s going to change. The collection will still be limited to “justifiable” homicides and will still be voluntary. Comey says he wants more law enforcement agencies to submit data, but there’s no directive being issued to force the issue.

If anything’s going to mobilize a more complete collection of shooting data, it will likely be new legislation. But the only recent effort towards a more comprehensive database of police-involved killings is languishing in Washington, having gone no further than being assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If any expanded reporting does result from Comey’s announcement, it will still be heavily-skewed in favor of law enforcement agencies and their use of force. Because it will only contain information on homicides deemed to be justified, the report will not provide any further information on unjustified uses of deadly force. This will do nothing to further the conversation on law enforcement use of force, much less increase the level of trust in the communities they serve.

Comey is correct that continuing to serve up incomplete statistics won’t result in positive change. But his statement contains nothing that indicates substantive changes in reporting is on the way. The only difference here is that the FBI is finally acknowledging the public’s growing disgruntlement with the nation’s law enforcement agencies. But Comey’s light touch — designed not to offend his agency’s brothers-in-arms — suggests the only thing he’s willing to throw at the problem is a few extra words.