Each year police kill a certain number of civilians. And every year the FBI puts out the Supplemental Homicide Report that's meant to provide an accurate count of those deaths. But it doesn't.
"I would rate it somewhere between awful and garbage-worthy," says David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri and a retired cop, "It should be thrown out. People should not pay any mind to it."
It is so full of errors says Klinger, "I have described it as garbage, I have described it as a steaming pile of feces."
Three different government agencies have tried to get at the numbers. The Centers for Disease Control puts out a report, and there’s the FBI’s Justifiable Homicide Report. And, until March 2014 when it suspended data collection, the Bureau of Justice Statistics put out a report on arrest-related deaths.
Check the data collected by the FBI and you'll see that in 2013, 461 civilians were killed by police. But the data may be off. That's because the information comes from local police agencies that aren't required to send their data to the FBI, so some police departments don’t send data at all. Klinger notes that some agencies say justifiable homicides shouldn't be treated as crimes.
"I have heard some police agencies say 'We’re not going to report this to the FBI because there’s no crime involved,'" Klinger says.
But another part of the problem comes down to a tiny and seemingly mundane detail: paperwork. Look no further than the form law enforcement officers in Florida have to fill out when anyone in the state is killed. It looks like the kind of paperwork you fill out at a doctor’s office, but it's a form about death, and the categories are a little different. And that, says Gretl Plessinger, spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, is the problem. Some of the FBI’s categories and Florida’s catagories don't match.
“We both have a rifle and shotgun code," Plessigner says, "but the FBI has an additional code called 'other gun.' Florida doesn’t have a category called 'other gun.'”
Even though Florida sends its data to the FBI, the FBI isn't using it because the bureau can't compare apples to apples, or in this case, death-by-handgun to death-by-handgun, says Plessinger. While some of Florida’s police departments could easily update their systems to be in sync with the FBI’s, she says, for others, the process would be prohibitively expensive. It would mean buying new software or paying more staff. This same issue is preventing data from police departments around the country from being counted.
"Everyone is not filling out the same form, and that’s part of the problem," says Kevin Strom, director of the policing, security, investigative science program for RTI International, an international nonprofit research organization.
RTI International did a study with the Bureau of Justice Statistics that found that the FBI’s data is missing more than half of police-involved civilian deaths. Translate that into layman-speak and you have hundreds of people who have been killed by police who aren't being counted. That means the FBI's count of 461 deaths in 2013 could be vastly off.
What is the best way to find out how many civilian deaths have actually occurred?
"Unfortunately, in many places you would have to go to each individual police department and ask them," Strom says of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the country.
Getting a uniform system for all those police departments to report their data, says Strom, could be a challenge. In the meantime he says, the current system isn’t working very well, and the FBI agrees.
"Quite frankly, information's limited. It's very limited and it's very, spotty,"says Stephen Morris, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division.
But, he says, fixing the problem is not as easy as it might seem.
“Most people will say, 'Well that's simple, just issue, just make a law, just legislate it," Morris says.
While the state of Maryland has just introduced legislation to make reporting all officer-involved deaths to the governor’s office mandatory, Oregon and North Carolina are the only other states with similar laws on the books. And, Morris says, even if the federal government made reporting justifiable homicides to the FBI mandatory, it's unlikely it would get willing participants.
“The states and the local agencies, some believe that they can, some believe that they don't have to," Morris says.
The FBI says it’s working on getting better data on deaths involving police, such as how and why the deaths happened. Klinger says if they don’t get the data they need to help them understand the problems, they won’t be able to fix them. He says better data is something everyone, including the police, want to see.
But to make things even more complicated, Klinger says if we look only at deaths, we’ll miss out on most of the situations where cops decide to use deadly force. That’s because bullets shot by police are more likely to cause injury rather than death, Klinger says.
"If we focus on the last moment when a police officer is making his or her decision to pull the trigger or to hold fire, we’re missing a huge component of what’s going on," he says.
If we knew more about the way officers behaved before a shooting, says Klinger, we could figure out ways to reduce the number of shootings that occur. Imagine, he says, you’re a cop on patrol. You get a call about a man with a gun. You’re in your police car, and you decide to pull up within 10 or 12 feet of this individual. He brandishes the gun. You end up shooting him.
“An analysis would say that, 'Well, it’s a legally justified shooting,' and that would be true. But the broader analysis would be, 'Why in the world did you drive a squad car so close to a guy who had a gun?' ” Klinger says.
"Police officers are going to have to shoot people because people do bad things, and some of these people doing bad things who are shot by the police are going to die," Klinger says. "But there are ways we know that we can mitigate the likelihood that a police officer is going to have to shoot. If what we’re doing is just looking at the end point and not what came before, we’re missing an opportunity to train."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described RTI International as a national organization. The text has been corrected.
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