As killings by police officers across the country have gotten more and more attention over the past few years (increasing in number even as crime rates have gone down), so, too, has the media provided more attention to the fact that we have no reliable national statistics for the number of people killed by police officers. Regardless of whether such shootings are completely justified or a little sketchy, or worse, we don't even have good numbers from the government.
We do have some numbers provided by the federal government, but they're terrible and nobody writing about or analyzing police shooting statistics should use them. The FBI does document police killings reported to them voluntarily by law enforcement agencies, and many municipalities do not participate. Their numbers are so wildly off as to be completely useless.
The situation might not be changing much anytime soon. The Guardian, which has in response to the current zeitgeist created its own database to track how many people have been killed by the police in the United States, notes that FBI Director James Comey has decided participation will remain voluntary for now:
Writing as the FBI released its annual crime statistics, James Comey said an existing voluntary system, under which police departments around the country choose whether or not to submit data on homicides by their officers, will carry on.
Comey said the FBI would try to collect more information – but gave no specific details about how this would be done.
He said of the current information collected: "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."
How useless are the federal numbers? In 2014, the FBI documented 444 "justifiable homicides" by police under this voluntary reporting. The no-frills website "Killed by Police" documented 1,107 deaths for 2014. The Guardian, which just started its database in 2015, has recorded 871 deaths at the hands of police so far this year, twice the FBI's numbers, and we've still got three months left.
Read more from The Guardian here.