Today is Part 24 in a 5 week, 25 part series exploring solutions for police brutality in America. The problem of police brutality is actually deeply entrenched and amazingly complicated. Most of the factors that ultimately lead to fatal encounters happen long before the actual incidents ever take place. Police brutality has no quick fixes. No one single solution will solve the problem. Instead, it must be tackled from dozens of different angles, but as a part of one comprehensive plan
This series will lay out that plan with reasonable, achievable solutions that will drastically reduce police brutality in this generation.
After Ferguson teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August of 2014, the cause of police brutality went viral and people began demanding information and answers. The most basic question, an elementary one really, was “how many people are police in the United States killing per year?” As it turned out, nobody knew.
That should tell you everything about what local police departments and the federal government truly thought about the problem up until that point. They didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t a priority.
Just days after Mike Brown was killed, mainstream media outlets began reporting that American police kill at least 400 people per year. Those were the numbers given by the FBI. Except that number wasn’t anywhere near the truth? The numbers weren’t a hundred people off — or 200, or 300, or 400. In 2014, more than 1,100 people were killed by American police — nearly 278% more than was being reported by the FBI. That’s completely ridiculous. It would actually be ridiculous to be 25 or 30 people off, but more than 700? That’s ludicrous.
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) September 6, 2016
The numbers, as it turns out, were so wrong because the police departments were allowed to self-report details about the people they killed to the FBI. And, as you could imagine, when left to their own devices, America’s police departments severely dropped the ball. In response to this, local citizens started combing every news outlet to report their own numbers. To this day, the privately owned and managed database, Killed By Police, has had some of the most up-to-date and accurate information on people killed by police, with each entry backed by a local media report. The Guardian then took the work to another level with a project called The Counted — which tracks all fatal encounters with police. The Washington Post has its own database, which exclusively tracks the number of people shot and killed by police, but omits all other incidents of lethal force.
Mind you, none of those projects were done with the real support of a majority of America’s roughly 18,000 police departments. In other words, each of those databases has been forced to investigate and determine the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each person killed by a police officer in the United States on their own.
So, on Dec. 18, 2014 our federal government did something strange. It passed a law — something that doesn’t happen very much nowadays because our branches of government struggle to get along and agree on much. Yet, in this rare exception, the government passed the Death in Custody Reporting Actrequiring every police department in America to report basic data about each and every person who dies in police custody.
One thing went wrong, though — police departments ignored the new law. It meant nothing to them. Consequently, for all of 2015 the most accurate data we have on people killed by police came again from citizens and press outlets. That same trend has continued for all of 2016. The law exists, but nobody is truly enforcing it. It would seem like police departments, which were created for the expressed purpose of upholding the law, would not need to be begged and bribed to do this, but that is apparently the case.
Just last month, the Department of Justice announced that they are going to finally begin enforcing this law in October and will require every police department in America to submit data on every fatal incident. Something tells me, though, that police departments are going to ignore this request. If they do so, they will lose 10% of their federal funding. That number should increase to give the law more teeth.
If any police department in America is receiving federal funding and refuses to report the most basic information requested about the people who die in custody, the department doesn’t deserve a dime of federal money. The reports are only required four times per year. If your police department is either killing so many people that it does not want to report the information or has something else to hide, it should not receive any federal funding at all.
Even that may not be enough. Some police departments and their leaders simply may not care if their federal funding is cut. Maybe they receive so little that it is negligible or maybe they have a sheriff or police chief who wants to make a public statement that “they don’t answer to nobody.” Whatever the case, the Death in Custody Reporting Act needs to become fully mandatory with much more significant penalties for departments that fail to report data.
Now, having data on police brutality does not solve the problem in and of itself. Just like measuring your blood pressure doesn’t lower it. However, what we are talking about here is having a constant diagnosis of the problem. It must be accurate and current. Imagine a sports game without a score or a world without clocks or never actually knowing the temperature of an oven. We measure these points of information because they help us gauge and understand the world around us. Try baking a cake without actually knowing the temperature and see what happens. You could either end up with gooey pudding or sweet toast if you don’t guess right.
That’s where we are with police violence in America. We know the problem is severe and we know that it must be fixed, but we have had to guess about too many of the most essential data points. California, as it often does, is leading out front on this issue and began requiring mandatory reporting of fatal encounters on Jan. 1 of this year in a phased rollout of its own plan to properly track police violence. Every state in the country should follow California’s lead so that we can have a full and accurate understanding of the problem.