Thursday, March 19, 2015

The uncounted: why the US can't keep track of people killed by police

by Tom McCarthy in New York 

After a year of high-profile police killings, calls for a national database have gained traction. But how would that work? Tom McCarthy investigates the challenges for law enforcement and government officials alike.

A protester holds an image of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
A protester holds an image of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Relatively little public discussion has centered on how a federal count would actually work. Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters  

A year ago, in a bureaucratic shift that went unremarked in the somnolent days before Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, the US government admitted a disturbing failure. The top crime-data experts in Washington had determined that they could not properly count how many Americans die each year at the hands of police. So they stopped.

The move did not make headlines. Before Brown was killed, a major government effort to count people killed by police could be mothballed without anybody noticing. The program was never fully funded, and no one involved was accustomed to their technical daily work drawing a spotlight. 

But it had been a major effort. For the better part of a decade, a specialized team of statisticians within the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – number-crunchers working several nesting dolls deep inside the Justice Department – had been collecting data on what they called arrest-related deaths. The ARD tally was more than a count of killings by police. It was meant to be the elusive key to a problem that seemed easy to understand but difficult to define. The program set out to track any death, of anyone, that happened in the presence of a local or state law enforcement officer.  MORE

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