FBI should not be commended for collecting police brutality statistics yet

Starting in 2017, the FBI will launch a pilot program collecting national statistics on fatal and non-fatal interactions between civilians and law enforcement officers. The statistics will be searchable online, according to an Oct. 13 article from The Washington Post. 

Prior to this announcement, the only databases of these statistics were collected by nongovernment publications and organizations. Two notable and frequently cited databases were created by The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Data collection by the federal government will make statistics more authoritative and uniform. It could also help indicate which police departments have exemplary practices so others can emulate them.

While the Justice Department should be commended for this step, the accuracy of this data and how it is used are important considerations.

One flaw in the proposed plan is that the Justice Department can only assess fines for departments that fail to report fatal incidents but cannot penalize the failure to report nonfatal incidents, according to The Washington Post article. Lack of enforcement tools means a significant part of the picture is likely to be missing.

In addition, the comprehensiveness of this data, including the scope of the pilot program, also merits concern.

The pilot program needs to focus not just on collecting this information from departments in cities like Chicago with documented police brutality issues but also from smaller police departments in less-populated areas as a resource for the future.

The pilot program is beneficial because it will allow the FBI to see which collection methods work and which do not, so that when a larger, permanent program is implemented, the best practices for collecting and reporting these statistics can be used.

Errors are always a problem in data collection. For example, Chicago’s inspector general said statistics provided by the Independent Police Review Authority did not match up with actual incidents from October 2013 to September 2014, according to an Aug. 2 article from DNAinfo.

For the sake of accuracy, auditors should be part of the data collection process. If these statistics are flawed, they will be of limited use.

Police brutality is a serious, chronic issue in police departments across the U.S., and it is important that government agencies on every level take responsibility for this problem and fighting against it. The federal government is setting the precedent that it takes police brutality seriously, and so should other jurisdictions.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that focuses on criminal justice issues, said on May 15 that one of the “13 Important Questions About Criminal Justice We Can’t Answer” is “How many police are investigated or prosecuted for misconduct?”

These statistics could answer that question, and many others about the justice system and police brutality, but only if the statistics are collected effectively.