This week as all eyes were on budget deal wrangling, with little attention and fanfare, Congress actually got something done to reform the police. It passed a bill that could result in complete, national data on police shootings and other deaths in law enforcement custody.
Right now, we have nothing close to that. Police departments are not required to report information about police to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some do, others don’t, others submit it some years and not others or submit potentially incomplete numbers, making it near-impossible to know how many people police kill every year. Based on the figures that are reported to the federal government, ProPublica recently concluded that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites.
Under the bill awaiting Obama’s signature, states receiving federal funds would be required to report every quarter on deaths in law enforcement custody. This includes not those who are killed by police during a stop, arrest, or other interaction. It also includes those who die in jail or prison. And it requires details about these shootings including gender, race, as well as at least some circumstances surrounding the death.
The bill is a reauthorization of legislation that expired in 2006. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has been trying to revive it since then without success. Scott told the Washington Post the first time the bill passed in 2000, it took years before data started to come in, because of “the way government works,” and then the bill expired. But if states don’t report information, the federal government could use its power to withhold funds to force compliance. It passed the House last year, but finally moved through the Senate this week on the momentum of post-Ferguson outrage.
The bill also “[r]equires the Attorney General to study such information and report on means by which it can be used to reduce the number of such deaths.”