Use of Force

Number of Killings By Police Doubles Because Feds Finally Put Some Effort Into Counting Them

Turns out the Justice Department is capable of accurately reporting on police use of force, it just never tried before.


The feds know what we're doing now.
Will Vragovic/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The federal govermment's revamped program for counting the number of people killed by police every year has revealed what several journalistic outfits had already reported — that the FBI had been vastly under-reporting the number of deaths in police custody for years.

The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a new study last week, detailing their new methodologies which go far beyond the previous practice of relying on states and local law enforcement agencies to voluntarily self-report their data regarding deadly use of force.

The rebooted Arrested Related Death (ARD) program — launched in 2003 but temporarily suspended in 2014 because the government had been sufficiently embarrassed about its failure to accurately document the many instances of government employees exercising the ultimate in government power — now "reviews open information sources, including news outlets and official agency documents, to identify potential arrest-related deaths," according to the summary attached to BJS's study.

That part of the program looks a lot like what news agencies like The Washington Post and The Guardian have been doing for the past few years to calculate the number of deaths in police custody. What differentiates the new program is the overdue implementation of the federal government's unique access to other government agencies. The study explains, "BJS surveys law enforcement agencies and medical examiner/coroners' (ME/C) offices to confirm all arrest-related deaths occurring in their jurisdiction and collect additional information about those deaths."

The Guardian notes that the new iteration of the ARD program "recorded 270 homicides by officers in three months last year. The FBI said earlier this year that it had counted just 442 in all of 2015." The ARD program always required local agencies to report their deaths in custody, but the federal government never penalized any of them with the loss of grant money for lack of compliance. Now that the federal government does its own investigating, it has found that the number of people killed by police last year is more than twice what was previously reported.

It has taken some time, but this actually is an appropriate use of government resources. Transparency of both the number of people killed by police—as well as the circumstances that led to the use of deadly force—is a necessary early step toward improving police-community relations and promoting conversations about criminal justice reform.