Editorials

August 30, 2014

EDITORIAL: Public needs better data on officer-involved shootings

Officer-involved shootings used to be fairly big news as they were rare and involved major crimes and some very bad people — incidents like the recent bank robbery in Stockton where fleeing robbers took hostages and used one as a human shield.

Officer-involved shootings used to be fairly big news as they were rare and involved major crimes and some very bad people — incidents like the recent bank robbery in Stockton where fleeing robbers took hostages and used one as a human shield.

But that shooting, tragic as it was, actually was uncommon in the amount of firepower and people involved. Far more frequently, and just as unfortunately, we hear news of other shootings involving police and civilians.

In June, for example, two Fresno police officers shot and killed a man as he stood over his brother with a knife and threatened to kill him.

A month earlier, a man that Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said was believed to be high on methamphetamine was shot to death by two officers after he threatened them with a steak knife.

In February, an 18-year-old man who ran from his car after being pulled over on a traffic stop in southwest Fresno was shot and killed by a police officer.

We could fill this page with a list of recent officer-involved fatal shootings — just from California.

Yet we don't know if officer-involved fatal shootings are as common as they seem. The reason is, 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 FBI 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 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, the information is spotty and of dubious accuracy. There is not even a comprehensive list of the reports of excessive use of force by police, 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, one more likely to do with politics than policy. It must change.

It is clear that, like with 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 Legislature. The California Attorney General's Office does collect death-in-custody data reported quarterly, as required by law. That's a place to start. But the figures are not published, which means they are essentially meaningless to the public.

We know no one wants to upset the law enforcement employee unions right before an election.

But we hope police agencies and their officers will champion the disclosure because, if there is an increase of officer-involved shootings, the trend might reflect the growing danger to them on the streets.

And if they are having more armed confrontations, we need to figure out why.

 

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