Attorney General Loretta Lynch this week renewed her call for America’s police departments to keep better records on how often they fire their weapons and how many people they kill each year, clarifying earlier comments in which some interpreted as her calling police killings “the minutia of record keeping.”
During a criminal justice forum in Washington, D.C., last week, Lynch responded to a question about the lack of a national reporting system for police shootings by saying the Department of Justice “is not trying to reach down from Washington and dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutia of record keeping, but we are stressing to them that these records must be kept.”
On Monday, Lynch was asked by a reporter if she believed the killing of citizens by police is “minutiae.”
“Police shootings are not minutiae at all and the department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data both on excessive force and on officer involved shootings is vital,” Lynch said during a press conference. “The point I was trying to make at that conference related to our overall view of how we deal with police departments as part of our practice of enforcing consent decrees, or working with them and I was trying to make the point that we also have to focus on building community trust which is a very individual – very local – practice.”
There currently is no federal requirement mandating that law enforcement agencies report how many citizens they kill, the circumstances around those killings or any demographic data about whom is being killed. In any typical year, most local police departments whose officers kill citizens – deemed legally justified or not – or have people die in their custody never report those deaths to the federal government because they are not obligated to do so. Of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, just about 750 regularly report on deaths in their custody, according to the FBI.
In that gap of mistrust between many communities and the police who patrol them, news organizations have taken up the task of calculating those deaths that appear in local media reports. In recent years, local police have reported just about 400 fatal police shootings a year. But according to The Washington Post, which has undertaken an ambitious project to track police killings, at least 754 people were shot dead by the police so far this year, dwarfing what had been the average routinely reported by police agencies.
Over the course of the last year, video footage of people killed by the police – shot in the back while running away, shot in the face while driving away or shot by an officer who thought he was pulling the trigger of a Taser – have played on like a snuff film over the last year. Americans have responded with a blend of shock, sadness and outrage. But those high-profile killings by police offer just a glimpse into what many believe is a wide misuse and abuse of force at the hands of officers, particularly against people of color.
While video of extrajudicial killings have gone viral and stoked outcry and television ratings, hundreds of others have been killed by police across the country, the vast majority of which were not captured on video and did not make huge emotional splashes or make the nightly news.
Last year, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires states that receive federal funding and grants to report the deaths of people in the custody of law enforcement agencies, including those being arrested, detained or incarcerated in corrections facilities. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had called for better record keeping among local agencies, as has FBI director James Comey.
“The first step to understanding what’s really going on in our communities and in our culture is gather more reliable data,” Comey said earlier this year during a speech at Georgetown University, adding that we have no idea “whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, or one a year, or one a century.”
“Without complete and accurate data,” he said, “we are left with ideological thunderbolts, and that helps spark unrest and distrust and does not help us get better.”
Lynch’s tenure had picked up largely where Holder’s left off, with America still grappling with how to address allegations of widespread police brutality and killings and ongoing questions regarding the value of black life in America. Part of what has fueled some of the racial consternation is that there simply is not a full understanding of the extent and frequency of extrajudicial killings or how they are trending nationally.
Lynch this week reiterated how key such data is.
“Unfortunately, my comments gave the misperception that we were changing our view in some way about the importance of this data,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”