Why Isn’t the Federal Government Mandating Better Data Collection on Police Killings?

Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Police brutality and the use of deadly force by law enforcement in America has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, but what remains elusive is conclusive federal data about exactly how many people are being killed annually by police. Media outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post have begun compiling their own data on police killings. So what can we discern about these year-end numbers?

Well, today we’re joined with Lawrence Grandpre. He is the Director of Research and Public Policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think-tank based in Baltimore. Lawrence, thank you so much for being here.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Thank you for having me.

KIM BROWN: So, Lawrence, let’s take a look first at the numbers overall, as reported by The Guardian’s The Counted report and The Washington Post. So for 2016, The Counted, which is The Guardian’s journalism project dedicated to recording police deaths, recorded 1,080 killings. And The Washington Post recorded about 957. Now, compared to 2015, The Counted documented 1,146 police killings, which is a difference of about 66 killings there. So how should we interpret this? Is this an excessive amount of police killings for a nation this size?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: I think when you compare it to equivalent European countries it is extremely excessive. If you look at the data state-by-state, you see that there’s a disproportionate per capita rate of killings in states that have large minority populations such as Native Americans or African-Americans. And this speaks not only to disproportionate minority context in terms of minorities being disproportionately likely to engage police. But if you look at specific reports that have been done — and this is very interesting, in my opinion — there is a proclivity amongst police that have been studied, and we should do more of these studies, to what is called “jump the continuum”. There’s a use-of-force continuum where police officers are trained to respond appropriately to different levels of belligerence and threat by people they engage. And one thing that has been recorded is an increased proclivity to jump the continuum, i.e., engage in a disproportionate, among the police force, relative to the threat that actually exists when engaged with minorities, specifically African-American men.

So I think that this number should not be seen in the abstract, as a raw number but as a manifestation of disproportionate minority context and a proclivity for police to jump the force continuum when engaging with suspects, i.e., citizens who are minorities, specifically black men in this country.

KIM BROWN: Lawrence, let’s get more into that, because you raise an excellent point. Because, as we examine these numbers via race, so many of the high-profile police killings that we hear about or have been highly reported are that of black men, usually unarmed. However, nearly twice as many whites were killed by police in 2016, this is according to The Counted — 566 whites killed by police compared to about 261 blacks killed. But if we look at this per capita, actually Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police when we look at the per capita numbers. But who is killed more often or is more likely to be killed by police, as you alluded to earlier.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Exactly. You have to, as you alluded to, go a bit deeper into the statistics — the raw number of people killed reflects the population discrepancy between white Americans and African-Americans. African-Americans only, quote/unquote, make up about 13 or 15% of America’s population, yet they’re nearly on a par with white Americans in terms of the folks who are actually killed by police, as previously stated.

When it comes to people who die with engagement with police, we don’t even have the data on total use of force and things like that because it’s very difficult to get that data. You’re looking at specifically men, specifically men of color, and as you alluded to, disproportionately Native American, African-American males.

So you’re looking at other forms of sexual harassment and things like that are more prevalent with women, specifically the highest elevations, of course, and that I alluded to before, moments where cops jump the continuum and use a disproportionate amount of force, seeing, the numbers show, to specifically be targeted toward men of color and Native American men and African-American men. And I think that this shows(?) a continuation of the police mentality of the thin blue line and the idea of eliminating perceived threats as opposed to treating individuals as they’re supposed to, which is policing as a public service paid for with tax dollars, and not being treated often cases as the people who are the bosses, the people paying the cops’ salary. They’re being treated as threats in the making, threats that maybe haven’t quite manifested themselves, and therefore often dealt with with disproportionate amounts of force.

KIM BROWN: When we’re looking at the data from the federal level when it comes to police-involved killings, when it comes to the number of people who die while in police custody, I mean, the numbers are woefully lacking. And FBI Director James Comey last year said that it was, “Ridiculous and embarrassing that media outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post have more accurate data on police killings in America than the Bureau does itself.” And both the FBI and the Department of Justice have implemented new systems of recording this data. And to quote The Guardian here where they talk about how the open source part of the data is going to be really critical and how there was a huge discrepancy in the number of killings in 2015 — in the first three months of 2015 — documented by the FBI and what The Guardian actually reported: the number came to about 442 there.

So why is it so important to make sure that we collect this data in the first place and that this data is also accurate?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: I think a lot of folks on both sides are engaging in the issue of police brutality within the context of theory and not in the context of reality. So data gives us a starting point to begin to have a contextual conversation around specific policy changes.

Now data isn’t a panacea. And part of the discrepancies that you may be seeing between the FBI and The Guardian is policing is a state and local issue here in America and the logistical ability for local and state police departments varies extremely widely in terms of their ability to collect this data, their enthusiasm to collect this data, their desire to — if folks have seen the TV show “The Wire” — jig the stats in terms of under-reporting data or re-classifying different engagements of use of force, as downgrading the levels of use of force that are actually existing, or blaming a death of someone in custody on something like natural causes or a heart attack and not the actual use of police force. So that’s just an amalgam of different ways that getting this data can become difficult.

So having a contextual starting point for the conversation of how we get this number down to zero, I think, getting that quality data is one portion of it. But I think conversations about other uses of force that don’t end in deaths, complete reporting on other forms of police violence that maybe isn’t shootings. The discrepancy between The Guardian and Washington Post, for example, if The Guardian counts deaths that aren’t shooting while The Washington Post is focused only on shootings.

So it’s always difficult to get the data always to sync up perfectly — definitions and context are important. But I think that data on police killings is one step in what needs to be a larger conversation on involving policing in America and changing the cultural silence that’s produced this data deficiency in the first place.

KIM BROWN: And it’s remarkable because we’re using the basis of this conversation based on two media outlets — The Counted, which is a subsidiary or project of The Guardian, and The Washington Post — to get at least some sort of idea or broader idea of actually how many people are killed annually in America by police. But why hasn’t this been implemented before at the federal level? Because we know that police departments are not really required to report this information, it’s voluntary that they disclose to the FBI whether or not someone died in custody or died via a police encounter. And even when a department does have a police-involved killing, it’s not mandated to report to the federal government in any sort of timely fashion. So why hasn’t this been implemented before now, Lawrence?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: I just think there had to have been a collective political will to get legislation passed that mandates this, or legislation passed that can enforce this. Again, policing is a state and local issue here in America, so it’s not the federal government’s typical practice to do a comprehensive legislation on policing. When they do so, it’s usually things like the so-called Byrne Grants where they incentivize certain points of policing or transfer military technology to local police.

And it is interesting that the federal government has not requested or required, in response to these forms of engagement, data collection on police practices. That goes to show you the mentality of the general government engaged with policing, starting with Nixon and the War on Drugs, really viewing the police as an appendage of this apparatus and it wasn’t so much concerned about accountability. It wasn’t concerned so much about using the federal government as a ground to aggregate information about policing because in America, again, the idea of federalism is that the states will handle it. And the states say the feds will handle it.

So I think the federal government having a role can be important, but it’s always important also that this data may be difficult to get to the feds, but if it’s compiled at a state and local level, that will also allow the state and local activists to engage in the real fights which will happen at the state houses around this country to change everyday policing practices.

The federal government can incentivize particular forms of policing that it wants to give grants to and give rhetorical intellectual cover for, but the everyday operations of policing is a state and local issue. So we really have to be sure that state and local entities are given the logistical ability to produce this data. And, if they can’t do it, have an independent entity with the ability to investigate the police, which is illegal in some states of America in terms of an independent entity investigating the police. And then have serious repercussions, either at state, local or federal level for folks who try to withhold statistics on police use of force and expand the box on the types of use of forces that data is reported on. Not just shootings, which are the most spectacular and, therefore, unfortunately, the easiest to get data on, but all the other forms of police violence that maybe aren’t talked about as much such as sexual harassment and everyday encounters with police that can turn violent, but oftentimes don’t make the media.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We have been joined with Lawrence Grandpre. He is the Director of Research and Public Policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. It’s a grassroots think-tank based here in Baltimore. Lawrence, we really appreciate your time today. Thank you.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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