Diane Dimond: Wanted: A better understanding of when, why police use force
It has been more than two years since Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into riots following the deadly police shooting of an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown. It was exactly two years ago that Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun, was shot dead by a cop in Cleveland, Ohio. There have been many more cases of deadly police shootings since then, and still Washington hasn’t figured out a way to keep track of when and why officers use force against the citizenry.
FBI Director James Comey has called the situation, “embarrassing … unacceptable and ridiculous.” And while there has been a lot of talk about setting up a national database to track trends in forceful police interactions with the public, exactly zero data has been collected.
While Washington contemplated the situation, the media got to work to fill the gap. Several organizations, most notably The Washington Post, created impressive state-by-state running tally sheets and descriptions of each fatal police shooting.
The Post’s database shows there were 991 such “cop kills” in 2015. And, as of this writing, police have found it necessary to use deadly force against 793 people so far this year. Reading through individual case summaries you come to understand the harrowing situations our officers face on a daily basis and the instantaneous decisions they must make. A reader can also clearly see too many “accidental shootings” taking the lives of whites, blacks, Latinos and all color of citizens.
The Washington Post’s online database explains that their information is gleaned from public records, news reports, social media and other sources.
So if a newspaper has enough staff to gather this much information why hasn’t the bloated Department of Justice (with its $21 billion annual budget) been able to, at the very least, compile a similar database? While not a completely precise process, it could be a helpful starting point from which to begin a national conversation about how our front-line officers react and under what circumstances. Wouldn’t that be a terrific tool for training academies to have as they review and update their procedures? Why has Washington been dragging its feet?
Finally, now in the waning days of the Obama administration, the Justice Department has come up with what appears to be a plan, albeit it a misguided and lackluster plan.
Early next year (read: When the next president takes office) a pilot program is scheduled to begin gathering statistics on the use of force by federal law enforcement officials and storing the information in a centralized online database.
Gee, I guess they need to start somewhere. But a quick glance at the list of recent trouble spots — Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte, Tulsa, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee, Staten Island and Cleveland — shows that not one involved a federal officer.
This DOJ plan will also instruct the 178,000 agents at agencies like the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshalls Service to keep track of their other activities. They are to gather information on all in-custody deaths (including suicides and natural passings) as well as other nonfatal encounters with the public. After a six-month trial period, your local and state law enforcement departments will be asked to voluntarily do the same.
See, there’s the trouble with this idea. Cop shops across the country are cash strapped, many barely able to meet the needs of the public with the staff they have. Where will they find an extra body (or two) to compile all this additional data?
The DOJ said it would set aside $750,000 to help local departments collect stats on this wider range of police actions but in a country with some 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies that calculates out to about $40 per department. Besides that, the proposed new plan carries no financial penalties and organizations can simply ignore the call for voluntary participation. So how good is a database that only attracts a relative few participants?
I’m not sure how much the federal pilot program is going to cost the taxpayers, but wouldn’t that money be better spent at the grassroots level, at the very departments experiencing the most community unrest? I’m not suggesting federal agents should be above scrutiny. But let’s get real, and admit that the front-line battle is where officers walk the beat and where patrol cars make their nightly rounds.
Reliable information is power. Let’s concentrate on getting it from the communities that need the most help. Let’s understand why our officers react the way they do and under what circumstances.
The media can’t keep taking up the slack on this important task forever.