Public deserves to know more on police shootings

Medical students stage a “die in” outside the Cook County building in Chicago to protest the killing of Laquan McDonald by a police officer in Chicago.
Medical students stage a “die in” outside the Cook County building in Chicago to protest the killing of Laquan McDonald by a police officer in Chicago. The Associated Press

FBI Director James Comey once called it “ridiculous and embarrassing” that the federal government has no idea how many Americans die every year at the hands of local police.

We agree, especially in light of protests over the police shootings of young black men that have brought city after city to near standstills this year. Chicago is just the latest example.

And so we applaud the FBI’s decision this week to overhaul its system for tracking violent encounters between civilians and law enforcement. It’s a step toward transparency that is long overdue.

The new public database, scheduled to be operational by 2017, will include information on fatal police shootings, as well as on incidents where cops seriously injure or kill a suspect by other means. That could be with a Taser, for example, or fists and feet.

The FBI now relies on police departments to volunteer data about “justifiable homicides,” but only a few of them actually do so. The Washington Post, which started a database of its own in January, put it at less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. It’s no wonder then that the FBI’s records show cops only kill about 400 people a year, while the Post puts it closer to 900.

What’s more, police often only share the most basic of information with the FBI. No details on race or gender. No explanation of the circumstances around each shooting. Just numbers.

The new database will include data on the gender and race of the officers and suspects involved, and on the nature of the threat. And it will all be available in real time, not in a tally at the end of each year.

California is better than many states in that it collects and publishes this information. This year, the state’s Department of Justice launched the website Open Justice, which provides data about deaths in police custody, including by race, gender, age and cause of death. Two bills signed by the governor this year also will increase the amount of data police must collect on use of force, and on pedestrian and traffic stops to ferret out racial profiling.

But in most states, data collection and reporting is voluntary. And so the FBI, which says it lacks legal standing to make departments comply, will face some of the same hurdles it always has. That must change.

Another thing that must change is the haphazard way police departments release footage from the cameras officers wear and have in their cruisers. The FBI should draft guidelines to avoid the kind of fallout that has come from Chicago’s handling of the shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Anything less than transparency, as Comey also said, is “unacceptable.”