This is not the first time Comey has criticized the lack of data available regarding how often police officers shoot and kill people. While the federal government does track some fatal police shootings, federal officials have acknowledged that this data is incomplete. Not all agencies in the United States participate in the voluntary reporting system, which had left a considerable gap in the ongoing public discussion.
Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. called the lack of information “unacceptable” earlier this year. Comey echoed this during a February speech discussing biases within law enforcement and the ongoing protests sparked by the deaths of unarmed black men and boys in New York City, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., among other places.
“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country,” Comey said during the February appearance at Georgetown University. He also said said that after heated protests began in Ferguson, he asked his staff for statistics on how many black people are shot by police, but they couldn’t provide a number.
The Washington Post has been compiling a database of every fatal shooting by police in 2015. (You can read more about the methodology here.) By the time Comey’s remarks were published Monday, The Post had found 729 such shootings. In the past four decades, the FBI had never recorded more than 460 fatal shootings by police in a single year; The Post reached that number in less than six months.
The Post is also tracking the deaths of law enforcement officers shot and killed by suspects. There have been 27 such deaths so far in 2015, down from the 35 deaths seen at this point last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization tracking line-of-duty deaths. Most recently, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Myers was shot and killed from behind last week while serving a domestic violence injunction in Shalimar, Fla.
Police say that despite statistics suggesting being an officer has gotten safer, the sustained protests over the last year have left them feeling under siege and unappreciated, according to interviews with current and former law enforcement officers as well as relatives of police.
The FBI releases a report on the number of law enforcement officers who die each year due to “felonious incidents in the line of duty.” Earlier this year, the FBI released its preliminary statistics, which found that the number of law enforcement officers killed was up in 2014 over the year before.
The number of slain officers in 2013 was the lowest the FBI has seen in any year since 1980, and the preliminary figures showed that the number of officers killed last year (51) was well below the average number of officers killed each year (64) between 1980 and 2014.
Comey’s message Monday accompanied the FBI’s release of crime figures for last year, which found that the estimated number of violent crimes declined again in 2014, falling very slightly from a year earlier. The number of violent crimes was also well below what the FBI found a decade earlier. Of course, while these numbers were released in the fall of 2015, they deal only with what happened last year.
So far this year, after decades of declining crime rates, some major cities and metropolitan areas are seeing an increase in homicides and shootings, leading to questions about what is causing this shift. While this has sparked alarm and concerns about a national crime wave, as well as some heated media coverage, experts and criminologists caution that it is too soon to know what is causing the rise.
The FBI’s annual report helps provide some context for the types of crimes that can be carried out in the United States and what has and has not changed. For instance, in 2014, the number of violent crimes — which includes murders, aggravated assaults, rapes and robberies — fell to a little more than 1.16 million nationwide. That figure was down from 1.39 million in 2005 and 1.79 million in 1995.
There were 14,249 murders in 2014, sharply down from the 16,692 murders in 2005. Some things don’t change all that much, though: Firearms were used in most of the murders in 2014 (67.9 percent), much as they were used in most of the murders in 2005 (72.6 percent).
In addition to this report and the crime report, the FBI also releases an annual report on hate crimes in the United States. Comey said that when the FBI’s uniform crime report has more information on police-involved shootings, it will publish something devoted to these situations.
“Once we receive this data, we will add a special publication that focuses on law enforcement’s use of force in shooting incidents that will outline facts about what happened, who was involved, the nature of injuries or deaths, and the circumstances behind these incidents,” Comey said. “We hope this information will become part of a balanced dialogue in communities and in the media — a dialogue that will help to dispel misperceptions, foster accountability, and promote transparency in how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve.”
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.