In a speech last year, FBI Director James Comey said that it was "unacceptable" that news outlets like the Guardian and the Washington Post are better than the federal government at collecting data on police killings.
Now, the Department of Justice appears to be doing something to change that. Earlier this month, the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics quietly listed the details of a new program that plans to bring the government's data-gathering methods up to date, with an added regulatory mechanism that threatens to cut funding of police departments that don't comply.
In the new program, which was outlined in the Federal Register—the government's database of rules and codes—and first reported by The Guardian, the DOJ listed a multi-step process that will now be required of police departments and medical examiners when reporting officer-involved deaths. Departments that have no police-related deaths will be required to mark an "affirmative zero."
Medical examiners will be ordered to share vital information with the DOJ, including officer names, demographic data for those who died, which weapon was used, and where the incident took place.
All information will need to be submitted on a quarterly basis.
"It's a step in the right direction to attempt to address the undercounting of how many people are killed by police in the U.S.," Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a project pushing for policy solutions for ending police-involved violence, told me. "The methodology has promise because they are going to medical examiners and coroners offices to find more cases from sources that the public doesn't have easy access to."
The government has never before collected meaningful data on police-involved deaths. The flawed data that the FBI collects is based on voluntary reporting from police departments, making the annual numbers it posts significantly lower than officer-involved deaths really are. Deaths in custody—including deaths that happen in local jails and holding centers—have long been required to report to the DOJ under the Death in Custody Reporting Act. In 2014, that law was reauthorized and updated to include "deaths that occur in the process of an arrest," but there hasn't been a meaningful framework that would allow the feds to enforce the collection of that data until now.
The DOJ, citing its authority under that law to implement the new program, is also planning to beef up the punishment for departments that don't comply. Failing to properly report police killings to the DOJ can result in up to a 10% loss of federal funding, giving departments a fiscal incentive to comply.
An estimated total of 19,450 state and local agencies will be required to participate. Data for the year 2016 will be required at year's end, but starting in 2017, the data will be collected quarterly, the new rules read.
The DOJ estimates this will cost police departments 20,440 hours to complete all the necessary forms, averaging just above an hour of paperwork for each department—hardly an added human resources burden to departments.
There's still a few things that aren't perfectly clear from the rule listed on the Federal Registry. It's not clear exactly when it goes into effect. It's not clear if the new rule marks a new interpretation of the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act. It's not clear what penalties departments that don't receive any federal funding would face for not complying or for giving incomplete or misleading information. Moreover, it's not clear why this new program was published in the registry so quietly, when it is such a hot button, public issue that the federal government has been hammered on in the past.
The Department of Justice did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
"The enforcement of this new program is key," Sinyangwe said. "Despite the fact that [the DOJ] has the authority to withhold funds from departments that don't comply for a few years now, we haven't seen the willingness to withhold funding. Everything has looked good on paper for a long time, and we're still collecting more deaths than the federal government collects, just by using local media reports."
In addition to its new guidelines for officials who are expected to report deaths up the chain of command, the DOJ is taking a proactive cue from The Guardian's "The Counted" project to overhaul its own methods of tracking police killings. The department will now actively work to confirm cases that are reported by local media, just as the paper does. Additionally, it will collect data from other open source databases, and require that departments list deaths that had escaped notice by federal officials or databases.
This approach has drawn scrutiny from some civil liberties groups. Kanya Bennett, told me that the method relies too heavily on non-governmental groups to track vital data.
"Right now the media is paying close attention to this, but if the focus should turn away from police violence, the DOJ won't be as able to collect what they should be collecting," she said. "We don't know how long the Guardian and the Washington Post can or will be funding these kinds of resources and reporting. Data is very elementary, but it is one of the biggest asks that we have in this police reform space. We would like to get to the place where law enforcement is the ultimate, uncontested best source for tracking how many people they are killing."
The program is open for public comment until October 3, 2016.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.