Finally, FBI will track police shootings — but there's a catch

Finally, FBI will track police shootings — but there's a catch
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The quiet announcement met with little fanfare — and that’s a damned shame. News of such consequence, in another era, might have set off a rare bipartisan celebration, since the federal government waited far too long to make this happen: The FBI announced the official launch of a national use-of-force data collection effort to track officer-involved shootings and other police incidents.

This should have been a priority decades ago.

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Policing began quite informally in the American colonies, predicated on the English system. The profession was considered a communal pursuit and, despite its noble intentions to enforce laws and prevent crimes, there evolved some serious racial undertones in this private-for-profit enterprise — most onerously, the misapplication of “law enforcement” as a “night watch” to harass the poor or to catch and punish escaped slaves.

American law enforcement evolved over the centuries but, at times, still flashed vestiges of its racist origins. Recall the grainy footage of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the ersatz public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., who wielded the “law” to terrorize civil rights marchers of the 1960s. Those images have been seared into the souls and consciences of Americans over the past half-century as we have grappled with our failure to live up to the ideals of our founding documents.

Although modern law enforcement resembles nothing of Bull Connor’s time, it is easy to understand why many black Americans and other minorities may view the police differently than do whites. In 2016, the Pew Research Center determined that blacks are about half as likely as whites to have a positive view of their local police. Of course, this poll followed the choke-hold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and the riot-inducing Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in the summer of 2014.

These racial tinderboxes were soon followed by the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody and the slaying of Walter Scott, shot in the back by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, while fleeing a traffic stop. These events helped create Black Lives Matter, a protest movement that some still view as anti-police.

Indeed, some miscreants sought to use high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men — even when the officers were cleared of wrongdoing — to justify killing police in New York City (2014, 2017) and in Dallas and Baton Rouge (2016).

While addressing a gathering of police chiefs in October 2016, then-FBI director James Comey admitted that “Americans actually have no idea” how many use-of-force incidents occur annually because, well, no one had been able to collect enough data. Allow that to sink in for a moment: Something as consequential as an armed instrument of the state employing deadly force on a citizen — justifiably or not — and we simply didn’t have the means in 2016 to accurately aggregate the data.

Comey’s pronouncement came three days after the Justice Department announced that the FBI would launch a pilot project in early 2017 to create the first online national database to collect both deadly and nonfatal police interactions with the public. So, here we are, nearly two years later, with an FBI announcement on Nov. 20, that it would assume a leadership role in a righteous effort that, sadly, had been borne by the Washington Post since 2015.

It is shameful that, in a nation that is the technological envy of the world, we seemingly couldn’t find a method to collect this information at the federal level before today. In many ways, the data would probably exonerate law enforcement more than implicate it.

Or, as conservative commentator Derek Hunter related in the New York Post this summer: “So far in 2018 there have been 22 ‘unarmed’ people killed by police, many of which had physical altercations with officers. Of the 22, 12 were white, 8 black, 1 Hispanic. The data holds for previous years, with 2017 having 68 deaths, 30 of which were white, 20 black, 13 Hispanic. This isn’t data compiled by a pro-police group; it’s from the Washington Post.”

In other words, the data doesn’t comport with the spreading of a false narrative.

Why is it so difficult to collect this data and make it public? Wouldn’t doing just that dispel the dishonest trope of “racist” cops hunting down unarmed young men of color? Well, as with almost every proposed federal initiative in our country’s 242-year history, it’s complicated. And there’s a lot of data to be had, with some 10,554,985 arrests nationally last year. That many arrests equates to many more encounters between police and civilians, any one of which could potentially lead to use of force.

The FBI allows that the goal of the database is less of an insight into specific use-of-force incidents and more of a “comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved.” But it acknowledges its own impotence, while citing its collaboration with “representatives from various law enforcement agencies and organizations throughout the nation to develop the features of the data collection.”

“Participation,” according to the FBI, “is voluntary.”

Therein lies the fundamental flaw in the data collection component of this research model. Incomplete data-sets lead to inaccurate results and fuel speculation that statistics are skewed to protect law enforcement. That’s not transparency.

The Post has relied on local reporting to compile its listings. The FBI may have created an internal mechanism to comb the internet for reports of officer-involved shootings across the nation — but every use-of-force incident doesn’t necessarily get reported in every locale. This will make it incumbent upon individual police agencies to report this information to the FBI, lest the compilation of these interactions be rendered useless.

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Which raises a point: Should the Justice Department attempt to restrict the disbursement of federal grants and funding to municipalities that don’t report this critical information? That was tested recently by the Trump administration, which tried to block federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE’s frequent judiciary foil, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that federal funding could only be withheld “with congressional authorization.”

Since compelling compliance may be difficult, persuasion may be the best route — and, here, the media may play a vital role.

The FBI’s assumption of responsibility in use-of-force data collection may only qualify as a half-victory but it is a positive step towards restoring public trust in law enforcement.   

James A. Gagliano is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and a CNN law enforcement analyst. He is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University and a leadership consultant of the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano.