Crime & Justice

What changes now that FBI says it'll collect officer-involved shooting data

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A Federal Bureau of Investigation official pledged Tuesday to expand data collection on officer-involved shootings, following growing protests triggered by the deaths of several unarmed black men across the country.

The FBI joins the U.S. Department of Justice as well as local law enforcement agencies and the California legislature and justice department in offering better data collection as a response to public outcry.

Currently, national data on officer-involved shootings are limited, lack uniformity and are often unreliable - when collected at all. Demographic information on officer-involved shootings is even more rare. Little data exist on the race, ethnicity, gender, or any identifying characteristics of people shot by police. 

An investigation by KPCC analyzed officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County between 2010-2014. The data revealed one in four people shot by police was unarmed. Black people were killed by officers at triple the rate as white people and Latinos, relative to population, according to KPCC's analysis

The FBI's data could potentially provide the raw numbers necessary to see such trends on a national level--but that's far from a certainty. 

What will change?

Officials said the data will go beyond fatalities to include all uses of force where people are seriously injured or killed and will probably include the race of the suspects and the officers and the level of threat, Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division told the Washington Post, which was first to report the announcement of a new system by 2017.

The FBI also did not offer any new incentive for local law enforcement agencies to boost participation, which is voluntary, except where states mandate cooperation.

Will California be affected?

Not really. California law already requires sheriffs and police chiefs to report officer-involved homicides to the Department of Justice, and, this year, the state legislature voted to expand the data collection, beginning January 1, 2017, to include:

Local law enforcement officials have since positioned themselves to come out ahead of the issue. A few weeks after the bill was signed into law, Los Angeles Police Department Commission President Matthew Johnson announced his agency would grow data collection to extract troubling trends and identify best practices.

What does the FBI already collect?  

Data is limited and unreliable. 

Prior to this week's announcement, the FBI published a nationwide annual tally of officer-involved homicides - which does not include shootings where the person survived. Figures include type of weapon used in what the bureau calls "justifiable homicides" and defines as "the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty."

But, the FBI's data on officer-involved shootings is widely considered inaccurate, because of low participation by local law enforcement, and the bureau's Director James Comey has called for improvements to data collection and analytics multiple times this year. 

"How can we address concerns about “use of force,” how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents?" Comey said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in February. 

"We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities," he said.

Whether this analysis will ultimately lead to changes in policy to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings remains a question.