Over the last year, our computer screens and televisions have been saturated with video after video of civilians, many of them unarmed, being gunned down police. After each officer-related death we are left wondering how often these things really happen? Are they isolated incidents that are just playing on a loop in the age of the 24-hour news cycle or are police really killing an overwhelming number of Americans? Well, the truth is: Nobody knows. The Guardian has reported that 1,022 people have been killed by police in just this year alone. The Washington Post claims that number is 878. But there is no real way of knowing who is right because no government agency has ever tracked police related shooting deaths — until now.
The FBI and the Department of Justice recently announced that both agencies are creating their own systems to track the number of police related shootings across the country. The announcements come as a welcome surprise to activists who have been fighting for such a system for years. The calls for change grew even louder over the last year in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri; Brown’s death sparked outrage and demands for police reform across the country.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch held a press conference where she outlined the Department of Justice’s plans for an open-source tracking system. The new program will not only track the number of people killed by police, but also incorporate data of nonfatal shootings and civilian deaths in police custody. President Obama and AG Lynch have been taking steps to improve the way police departments report deaths because up until now the data has been voluntary and only counted what police deemed “justifiable homicides.”
“The department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data,” said Attorney General Lynch. “This information is useful because it helps us see trends, it helps us promote accountability and transparency. We’re also going further in developing standards for publishing information about deaths in custody as well, because transparency and accountability are helped by this kind of national data…This data is not only vital – we are working closely with law enforcement to develop national consistent standards for collecting this kind of information.”
On Wednesday, FBI Director James B. Comey gave a frustrated speech to 100 politicians and top law enforcement officials, at a private gathering. The Director called it “embarrassing” that citizens have to get their information about police related shootings from The Washington Post and “the Guardian newspaper from the U.K.”:
“You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,’ which I saw this weekend. . . . The CDC can do the same with the flu,” he continued. “It’s ridiculous — it’s embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
It is embarrassing that there are so many police related deaths in the United States and such poor oversight here in America that a foreign newspaper has decided to tally them up for us. The fact of the matter is, the federal government cannot adequately address the problem if they do not have all of the information they need. What’s really shameful is that it took thousands of deaths and hundreds of protests before the government decided to take action. Hopefully, now that they have finally created systems to track the murders perpetrated by the men and women sworn to protect and serve us, they will be able to use this data to force change. We desperately need police reforms, because what’s more shameful than not having a system to track these deaths, is the fact that we need one in the first place.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.