Data Collection Law on Excessive Force Shown Ineffective in the Past

December 16, 2014

The re-authorization of the federal law requiring data on police shootings due to "excessive force" did not produce any useful results last time around, says Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report.

The re-authorization of the federal law requiring data on police shootings due to "excessive force" did not produce any useful results last time around, says Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report.


Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome also to this edition of the Glen Ford report.

A bill passed by both chambers of Congress would require law enforcement agencies to report every police shooting and other deaths at their hands. That data will include each victim’s age, gender, and race, as well as details about what happened.

Joining us from Plainfield, New Jersey, is Glen Ford. Glen is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.

Thanks for joining us, Glen.

GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Oh, thanks for the opportunity, as always.

PERIES: So, Glen, tell us about this new law that’s been passed by Congress and Senate.

FORD: Well, it’s not that new. In fact, it’s a reauthorization of a bill that passed in the year 2000 and was in effect for about six years till 2006 and then was allowed to expire. Both times, the bill’s been sponsored by one of the Congressional Black Caucus’s most progressive members, Bobby Scott. He’s one of the four or five most progressive members of the caucus.

Bobby Scott himself complained back when the legislation was allowed to expire in 2006 that the feds hadn’t done much with the numbers when they did have them.

At any rate, what this bill requires, as you said, is that the states compile data on the age and the race and the gender of those people unfortunate enough to die in their custody. And if the states don’t comply, theoretically they could be cut off from a half a billion dollar honeypot of federal monies that are every year distributed to states based upon their crime rate and their population.

There’s one thing that is certain to come out of this legislation, even if not all of the states comply, and that is that the number of people who are officially listed as dying in police custody is going to go up, and maybe way up. The official figure now is a little bit over 400 a year–all of those deaths recorded, by the way, considered to be justifiable homicides. The figures don’t include homicides that are not justifiable. But other studies, some by journalists, some by other researchers, show well over 1,000 deaths in custody at the hands of police. And that would amount to about three per day instead of just a little bit over one a day. And those deaths also include death by Taser, death by chokehold, and death by all the other ways they have of killing folks.

I want to say the obvious about this bill. All this comes after black folks are in full mobilization mode about this issue. So, rather than somehow responding to us, it really is a nod to the activism that we’ve already shown.

But none of this is to say that information is not important. Especially in the legal arena, information is very important. When legal activists who are fighting against stop-and-frisk in New York City, it took several years, until, like, 2003, before they could force the New York City Police Department to give up that same kind of data on the race and the age and the sex of the people that they were stopping on the street. And then it took almost another decade before they could win the court battle to have stop-and-frisk declared unconstitutional. And now much of the police behavior that we used to call stop and frisk occurs under the broken windows theory of crime. But at least it did give a victory to the folks, based on those numbers, against one onerous policy on the part of the police.

I think it also has to be said, finally, that this half a billion dollars, this $500 million that theoretically can be withheld from police agencies if they don’t comply with the new law–and we do expect Obama, of course, to sign it–really amounts to a small fraction of federal aid to police departments. Homeland security, which, of course, is now a mega-agency that swallowed up all kinds of other agencies, Homeland Security provides billions and billions of dollars directly to local and state police departments, and that is not covered by this bill. Homeland Security provides more in terms of weapons and military gear to local police than even the Pentagon does.

PERIES: So, Glen, one would think this kind of data reporting should have been a part of the system all along. And, as you said, it expired in 2006, what was required. So what has happened between 2006 and now?

FORD: A movement happened. Quite clearly what the federal government had going was some kind of twist on don’t ask, don’t tell. It was will ask, in terms of asking the states to provide this kind of data, but we really won’t press you to tell. Now, because there is a movement, the Congress has found that, well, this is something that we can throw to the demonstrators. It’s not enough. Real lives are being lost, and we need more than just a tally.

PERIES: Right. And as you said, the $500 million will be held as a carrot for the law enforcement agencies. Are there any consequences if they don’t do the reporting? Is there any built-in mechanism by which–besides, of course, this little bit of money, as you said, breadcrumbs–is there any other disciplinary means to make sure that that data is collected and reported on?

FORD: Well, that would all come out in the report that the attorney general is going to be required to submit to Congress in two years himself about how useful these figures have been to him. So one would assume that if the states have not been giving him the figures that he has to report on the usefulness of to Congress, that we would know about that in the report. But that’s two years, and reporters who’ve covered this story say that we can expect that it would take a couple of years, even by states that are trying to be compliant, before they could match their system of reporting to that of the federal government and get a reliable stream of information. So even in the best scenario, we’re not going to get very top-notch data for a couple of years now. And by law we won’t even hear from the attorney general in two years. So there’s nothing that will change things for people, including the range of their knowledge of the situation, for a long time.

PERIES: Right. And finally, Glen, do we know the reason why it was allowed to expire in the first place?

FORD: Probably from lack of interest, but I’m not sure.

PERIES: Alright. Glen, thank you for keeping us updated on all the developments related to racial profiling, now data collection.

FORD: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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