The United States is sick to death of hearing about people being killed by police.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s based on things like the number of news stories being published on the topic, the number of visitors to fatalencounters.org, and the amount of contributions to our crowdfunding campaign. And yet the deaths continue unabated.
And you know what? America has been here before.
Many times in our history, people have grown increasingly upset at apparent police brutality. There were riots, people talked, and talked and talked, the government said it would do something about the issue, and people calmed down, content that something was being done because the government said it would do something.
I’m not exaggerating. The Kerner Commission was an 11-member commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future. Many of the recommendations referred specifically to police agencies’ collection of information to make better policies.
The 1992 Rodney King riots seem like yesterday to those of us who obsessed on them on their televisions. You know what came out of that? The government made a law to collect data regarding police violence. It was called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law said that “the Attorney General shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”
New York City exploded in 1999 when Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by four City of New York Police Department plain-clothed officers. They fired 41 shots, 19 of which killed Diallo. You may have heard the Bruce Springsteen song. Again, riots and the promise of action by Congress, which passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000. That law again required the Justice Department to collect information about officer-involved deaths. Mainstream media parroted the numbers released by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics annually, saying between 297 and 386 people were killed by law enforcement. DiCRA expired in 2006.
And then came the killing of Michael Brown in August 2014, and in December, the Death in Custody Reporting Act was reauthorized. Again, the federal government promised to collect the data, but again made it a voluntary program. In October 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics did an analysis of their data collection and said they were only documenting about 50 percent of officer-involved deaths. And that too was an underestimate–as Fatal Encounters had already proven and was reported in the national media. But then-FBI Director James B. Comey promised to do better.
As my friend, a former prosecutor, used to say, “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, third time is a pattern.” Our government has a 50-year pattern of saying it will collect data regarding deadly police violence and then not collecting it. It’s a cynical and intentional strategy not to answer citizens’ questions about how often the government kills its own people. I don’t even want to theorize about why that might be, but I can see the results.
The internet disabled the government’s ability to say it was collecting data without anyone verifying the truth or falsity of that statement. Fatal Encounters was the first. It’s the largest. And, according to the government’s own study, it’s also the most accurate and comprehensive.
The thing is, collecting this data costs money. Like for almost every enterprise on the planet, personnel is our highest expense. We collect and research comprehensive information for less than $50,000 a year, and we make it available for free to anyone in the world who wants to use it. I can’t imagine how much the federal government has spent to collect shoddy data.
I believe the government will not collect the data. The Washington Post only collects data regarding gunshots, which is sexy as far as newspaper stories go but understates police violence in the United States by around 700 deaths every year.
I’m sorry that people are tired of talking about people who get killed by police. Believe me, it’s not a fun area of research for any of us.
But if you and I don’t collect the data, it’s not going to be collected in a real way. And if history is any indication, without solid data, our nation will be talking and rioting about police violence again.
D. Brian Burghart