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Editorial: Public needs better data on officer-involved shootings

On any given day, it seems, one California news outlet or another is reporting a fatal clash between police and a civilian.

The stories have a common thread: Police find a person who is wielding what appears to be a weapon – a gun, knife or maybe even a power tool – or makes movements that indicate he or she has one in a waistband, in a pocket or under the car seat.

The officers shoot – and shoot to kill.

Officer-involved shootings used to be fairly big news as they were rare and involved major crimes and big baddies – incidents like Stockton’s recent bank robbery where the fleeing robbers took hostages and used them as human shields.

Now, though, officer-involved shootings are as common as celebrities going to rehab. Last week, for example, there were two shootings within a day of each other. In one, an apparently mentally ill man in Woodland came at officers with a knife, and was shot and killed.

A few hours later, a California Highway Patrol officer shot a driver who refused to get out of his car for a drunken-driving test on Interstate 5 near Woodland. He didn’t die, though he was hospitalized in critical condition. As two CHP officers were trying to extract the driver from the vehicle, the man reportedly reached for a weapon and was shot by a third officer.

We could fill this page with a list of recent officer-involved fatal shootings – just from California, and just from news accounts. There’s no telling how many are never reported to the public.

Numerous anecdotes aside, we don’t actually know if officer-involved fatal shootings are as common as they feel.

The reason is simple: The data that might give us a handle on whether this is a trend to worry about don’t exist. At least not in any formal, comprehensive manner that would allow the public to objectively assess how often police kill suspects or other detainees as compared with past years.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation collects extensive data about crimes from every law enforcement agency in the United States. It has an entire division devoted to gathering information about officers killed and assaulted in the line of duty. The division compiles data such as what sorts of weapons were used against the officer and what time of day the incident occurred.

But when it comes to civilians dying at the hands of police, what information does exist is spotty and of dubious accuracy. There is not even a comprehensive list of the nation’s police excessive use of force reports, though Congress required the reporting of such data 20 years ago.

It’s an astonishing gap in our country’s extensive criminal justice data gathering system, one more likely to do with politics than policy. And it must change.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics collects death in custody information from states, per the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000. But some states don’t participate, and the definition of custody is wide enough to make it unclear if it involves only those already under arrest. In a 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on arrest-related deaths from 2003-09, the bureau warned the picture was incomplete.

“Arrest-related deaths are under-reported. BJS did not attempt to estimate for partial or non-responding jurisdictions. Data are more representative of the nature of arrest-related deaths than the volume at which they occur.”

Even a partial picture hints at a trend, though. Of the 4,813 people who died during arrest in that six-year period, about 60 percent, or 2,931, were killed by law enforcement. The report also shows a slow but steady year-over-year increase of people being killed by officers, from 376 in 2003 to 497 in 2009.

We need better data. In a country reeling from the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, the public must start demanding it of their elected officials.

It seems clear that, like guidance on marijuana, the feds aren’t going to take a lead on officer-involved shootings. Leadership must come from the states.

In California, that means Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and the state Legislature. We understand no one wants to upset the powerful law enforcement employee unions, especially right before an election. But we would hope that police agencies and officers themselves would champion the disclosure. If anything, the increase of officer-involved shootings shows the growing danger for them on the streets. If they are having more armed confrontations, we need to figure out why.

The California attorney general’s office does collect death in custody data reported quarterly from law enforcement agencies, as required by law. So that is a place to start. But the data are not published, which means they are essentially meaningless to the public. For all we know, those forms are sitting in boxes collecting dust.

It’s time to dust them off.