Federal Law Ordering US Attorney General To Gather Data On Police Excessive Force Has Been Ignored For 20 Years

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

Are police officers getting worse or is this apparent increase in excessive force nothing more than a reflection of the increase in unofficial documentation (read: cameras) and public scrutiny? What we do know is that as crime has gone down, police forces have escalated their acquisitions of military gear and weapons. With options for lethal and less-lethal force continually expanding, it seems that deployment of force in excess of what the situation requires has become the new normal, but it’s tough to find hard data that backs up these impressions.    

One of the reasons we don’t have data on police use of excessive force is because compiling this information relies on law enforcement agencies being forthcoming about these incidents. Generally speaking, it takes FOIA requests and lawsuits to obtain any data gathered by individual police departments. This shouldn’t be the case. In fact, as AllGov reports, this lack of data violates a federal law.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Among its provisions was the order that “the Attorney General shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.” The Justice Department was also required to publish an annual report on the data collected.

And…that’s pretty much the last anyone heard of that. The work of collecting the data was shuffled off to the International Association for Chiefs of Police, which made a few efforts at collecting data and put together a report in 2001, but has produced nothing since.

Unsurprisingly, law enforcement agencies don’t want to talk about it, and the entity in charge of compiling the data seems entirely uninterested in doing the job. Even if the data was collected as the statute requires, much of it would still be questionable. For one, it relies on self-reporting by entities that see zero benefit in exposing their officers’ wrongdoing. For another, excessive force incidents previously recorded may turn out to be “justified” later, either by internal investigations or via the judicial system. 

But a starting point would be nice or, at the very least, some ballpark figures on year-to-year excessive force incidents. Without it, the public is largely reliant on perception — and the perception is that police officers are deploying excessive force with increasing frequency. 

The person ultimately responsible for this annual compilation of data is none other than the US Attorney General — the same person who recently traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to help sort out its excessive force problem.

(a) Attorney General to collect
The Attorney General shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.

(b) Limitation on use of data
Data acquired under this section shall be used only for research or statistical purposes and may not contain any information that may reveal the identity of the victim or any law enforcement officer.

(c) Annual summary
The Attorney General shall publish an annual summary of the data acquired under this section.

(Pub. L. 103–322, title XXI, §210402, Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2071.)

But in the 20 years since the law went on the books, very little has happened and no one’s holding the AG or any of the law enforcement agencies below him accountable for the lack of input. 

Because the government can’t be bothered to police the nation’s police forces, it’s up to citizens to do the job. Deadspin-spinoff Regressing, ostensibly a stat-focused sports site, has asked its readers to help it compile a database of police shootings over the last three years (2011-2013)

This, too, is a job that is supposed to be performed by government officials.

The Justice Department began to compile statistics on police shootings in 2001, according to the International Business Times. However, their reports cover only the years from 2003 to 2009 and don’t tell the whole story because of incomplete reporting and problems with research methods.

The public will likely find more complete data than that compiled irregularly (and incompletely) from information reluctantly submitted by law enforcement agencies (if it’s submitted at all). Anthony Fisher points out the effed-upness of the situation over at Reason:

Considering the sheer volume of highly personal information the government collects and analyzes (often without consent), it is simply outrageous that the public has to struggle to find even the raw data tallying something as vital as government agents shooting citizens.

The general narrative is that criminals have gotten more dangerous, hence the need for better weapons and armor. But there’s no data to support this theory. Police work is safer than it’s been for over 50 years. It certainly appears that the police themselves are more dangerous, but there’s no data that proves that conjecture. At this point, Americans should have access to nearly 20 years worth of excessive force data. Instead, we have another situation where certain laws are optional — and these laws are being ignored by those who are more than happy to come down hard on even minimal violations by citizens. 

[Just a reminder to US cops: not every dangerous situation requires the use of excessive/deadly force. Here’s CCTV footage of Australian police defusing a situation involving a mall full of people and a mentally-unstable gunman who “held heavily-armed officers at bay for 90 minutes before the stand-off ended when Hillier was shot several times with non-lethal rounds.”] 


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