WASHINGTON — The FBI will launch a pilot project early next year to begin collecting use-of-force statistics nationwide and create the first online national database on both deadly and nonfatal interactions the public has with law enforcement.
"Accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement Thursday. "The initiatives we are announcing today are vital efforts toward increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve."
But although Lynch can impose financial penalties on law enforcement agencies that fail to report data about "civilians" who died during interactions with authorities or in their custody, the Justice Department cannot require state and local agencies to report the far larger number of such situations that are not fatal. Participation in the new use-of-force program by those agencies is voluntary.
The effort to create a comprehensive national use-of-force database follows a number of high-profile police shootings in the past two years of unarmed African-Americans. They include 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer in 2014, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in Cleveland by a white police officer, also in 2014.
Controversies also have erupted after deaths that did not involve gunfire. There were protests last year after Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, died in a county jail in Texas, and a year earlier when Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer. The fatal injury of 18-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody last year sparked widespread protests and riots in Baltimore.
FBI director James Comey called the lack of comprehensive national data on the use of force by police "unacceptable" and "ridiculous."
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement research and policy group, commented: "It's really important to know why one area of the country might have more use-of-force incidents versus another or why one department compares to another. Until we have those official statistics, we're working at a deficit."
In 2015, the Washington Post created a database of 991 fatal police shootings and published a series of articles that described trends found in the data. So far this year, the Post's database shows that at least 754 people have been shot and killed by police. Over the past four decades, the FBI has never recorded more than 460 fatal shootings by police in a single calendar year.
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In 2014, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which required the states and federal law enforcement agencies to report data to the Justice Department about the number of people who died during interactions with law enforcement. But Congress did not impose a similar reporting requirement for the nonlethal use of force by law enforcement.
Such a requirement was recommended in May 2015 by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which called for law enforcement agencies to "collect, maintain and report data . . . on all officer involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death."
The FBI is seeking comments from local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies as well as civil rights organizations, to develop the new data-collection program, known as the National Use of Force Data Collection. The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service will participate in the program.
After reviewing the comments, the FBI plans to issue a final proposal and begin testing the program's methodology early next year. After six months, the Justice Department hopes to open the program up to other law enforcement agencies.
"In the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work alongside our local, state, tribal and federal partners to ensure that we put in place a system to collect data that is comprehensive, useful and responsive to the needs of the communities we serve," Lynch said.
In a separate program, the Police Data Initiative, 127 law enforcement agencies across the country have committed to publicly releasing information that includes data on stops and searches, uses of force, officer-involved shootings and other police actions.