Is Dept. of Justice Use of Force Database enough?

October 21, 2016

TOPSHOT - Baltimore County Sheriffs officers gather after Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted of all charges in his murder trial for the death of Freddie Gray at the Mitchell Court House June 23, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Goodson, who drove the van in which Freddie Gray, a young African American, was transported before he died was acquitted of all charges including second degree murder and manslaughter. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT – Baltimore County Sheriffs officers gather after Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted of all charges in his murder trial for the death of Freddie Gray at the Mitchell Court House June 23, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last Thursday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced steps by the Department of Justice to enable the nationwide collection of data on law enforcement interactions with civilians, including data pertaining to the use of force by law enforcement.

While Amnesty International USA welcomes these small steps towards transparency and accountability, we also recognize that much more needs to be done, urgently, in order to address the the current crisis of police-involved deaths in the United States.

So what exactly is the Department of Justice committing to? And what’s missing from this proposal? And what exactly is it committing to with the current administration?

One commitment is to develop a program for National Use-of-Force Data Collection, an FBI pilot program that will evaluate the methodology and quality of the data, and the collection process itself.

A point of concern with what the FBI has proposed and solicited comments around with the pilot of their use of force database is with the law enforcement agencies mentioned. In the Department of Justice comments on the pilot program, the FBI, ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and Marshals Service are the federal agencies identified as participating.

We strongly believe that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should be included in the data collection program, especially as they are the largest law enforcement agency in the USA with expansive jurisdiction that deals with a population that may be prevented from reporting abuses. Leaving CBP out of this program is concerning and risks leaving out important data.

Also, the FBI Federal Register Notice included definitions for who is included in law enforcement as well as what constitutes “serious bodily injury.” According to this proposal, every discharge of a firearm would mandate reporting, and whether every use of a Taser or a similar device would be reported. Given that the public comment period continues till December, we hope that this program will at least have an implementation plan prior to the next administration.

Arguably, being shocked by 50,000 volts of electric current that paralyzes you is a traumatic event that should be documented through this use of force database. Furthermore, Amnesty International USA found that over 700 people have died following the use of a Taser since 2001, and we recommend that all Taser use should be documented through this process, just like firearms.

There is also a recommitment to compliance and federal reporting under DiCRA, or the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which was reauthorized in 2014, but hasn’t really come to fruition. The Attorney General announced that federal law enforcement agencies would now have to report information on deaths that occur during interactions with federal law enforcement agencies or in their custody to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

As Amnesty International USA stated in its public comments regarding DiCRA earlier this month, this is a welcome step, but we have serious concerns regarding its implementation.

Penalties for non-compliance must be strict in order to incentivize reporting, especially as existing data already contains serious discrepancies.

For example, reportedly, only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported approximately 444 fatal police shootings to the FBI in 2014, though media documentation over the past two years has demonstrated that the annual numbers of people killed by police is closer to 1,000.

DiCRA gives the Attorney General the discretion to subject states that do not report deaths in custody to a ten percent reduction of Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program funds.

It is clear that financial penalty is critical to successful implementation of DiCRA, as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed. Any statutory or formula grant, including the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, should require data reporting as part of its existing performance metrics.

Lastly, the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Service Office, also known as “COPS”, announced that it’s taking over the Police Data Initiative (PDI), through which participating law enforcement agencies commit to publicly release at least three policing datasets, which can include data on stops and searches, uses of force, officer-involved shootings, and other police actions.

While it is laudable that there are now 129 jurisdictions participating in PDI and 120 in the White House “Data-Driven Justice Initiative”, together, these programs reach anywhere between 40 to 90 million people.

On the high end, that is a little less than 1/3 of the population, and only 1/8 of the population on the lower end. Voluntary participation must be further incentivized in order to achieve real nationwide results.

With an end to the current administration swiftly approaching, these initiatives must be implemented sooner rather than later. We stress that with public comment periods extending close to the next administration, there is serious risk of losing ground and momentum without prioritizing the immediate implementation of these steps.

If these programs really are a priority, we urge the Department of Justice to incentivize participation, penalize non-compliance and expand definitions of bodily injuries to encompass a wider set of police-involved interactions.