A series of high-profile police shootings last year, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Tamir Rice in Ohio, sparked a wave of protests and revived a debate regarding the way police officers use lethal force. It also drew attention to the fact that the debate was occurring despite the lack of a comprehensive national database documenting every time police officers shot or killed someone.
The FBI keeps track of what are deemed “justifiable homicides” by police officers. In 2013, the FBI reported that there were 461 such deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers. However, as the Justice Department notes, the reporting is not mandatory and not all police departments participate. As a result, journalists and academics who independently study the issue believe the numbers are incomplete and say there are more than 1,000 such deaths each year.
In addition, after two New York City police officers were shot and killed while sitting in their squad car, there has also been a surge in attention paid to the dangers faced by police officers. A report issued by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund last month found that the number of officers shot and killed each year rose last year, though it fell far below the numbers seen in previous decades.
The FBI also gathers information regarding how many officers are killed in the line of duty, though again, since the reporting is only voluntary, many agencies do not report this information, Holder said.
Holder said Thursday that improving the way this information is collected would simultaneously address concerns people have regarding police officer safety and civil liberties.
While he did not announce any new initiative or how data could be better collected, Holder’s remarks represented the highest-profile admission yet that the dual (and, at times, dueling) conversations regarding police tactics and safety have been occurring without key information.
Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, has called on Congress to create and fund a program to help agencies collect and submit this data.
“By making sure this information is made available, we can build trust with our communities and improve the safety of our officers nationwide,” Canterbury wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today this month.
The FBI and other agencies have warned in recent years that “domestic extremists” could pose a threat to law enforcement. Over the past decade, officers have received increased training to prepare them to handle such dangers, according to Jim Johnson, police chief of Baltimore County and chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.