Eric Holder: Failure to collect reliable data on police killings is unacceptable
US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice on September 4, 2014 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Eric Holder, the US attorney general, said on Thursday that the government’s failure to collect comprehensive data on the number of killings by police officers in America was unacceptable and must be addressed.

Speaking after a series of controversial civilian deaths at the hands of police prompted ongoing protests across the country, Holder said that all participants in the debate over the future of law enforcement should be able to agree on the need for reliable statistics.

And after the murder of two police officers in New York City last month led to heightened tensions between authorities and the rank-and-file, Holder said that better information was also needed on the scale of violence against officers.

“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said at a ceremony in Washington in honour of Martin Luther King. “This strikes many – including me – as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.”

The death last year of the unarmed civilian Eric Garner in New York from a police officer’s chokehold – along with the fatal police shootings of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Missouri, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old in Ohio playing with a BB gun – led to furious protests as well as acknowledgment from some authority figures of the need for reform.

Related: Pressure is on White House policing taskforce to deliver needed reforms

However the US has no authoritative source of data on deaths involving police officers. As part of its annual report on crime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation compiles a number of what it terms “justifiable homicides” by police using weapons each year. In November it reported that there had been 461 in the year 2013 – an increase of 8% on the previous year.

Yet the formal FBI count is based on figures that are submitted voluntarily by only some US police forces. Only about 750 of the country’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies have contributed to the count in recent years, meaning that the total number of killings by police is undoubtedly higher by a wide margin.

The FBI does, in fact, keep a comparatively comprehensive database of killings and assaults of law enforcement officers . It found that 27 died from injuries sustained in the line of duty during “felonious incidents” in 2013 while 49 died due to accidents.

Holder on Thursday said that a better system of record-keeping would be a “commonsense step that would begin to address serious concerns about police officer safety, as well as the need to safeguard civil liberties”.

Congress last month passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act , compelling states to report to the US justice department the number of people who have died each year while being arrested or in police custody. States must also give details such as the gender and race of the person who died and the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a co-sponsor of the law and a likely candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said it would ensure for the first time “a true picture of the extent and circumstances of deaths in the criminal justice system”. However some protesters claim that that the penalty threatened for states that do not comply – the possibility that the attorney general of the day may withhold up to 10% of their federal law-enforcement funding – may still not be tough enough to ensure comprehensive data collection.

The lack of reliable data was a recurring subject during Tuesday’s eight-hour opening public meeting of the policing task force convened by President Barack Obama following the controversy about the law-enforcement response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over Brown’s death in August.

Roberto Villasenor, the chief of police for Tucson, Arizona, and a member of the task force, said he had been “floored” by the fact “that we as a profession don’t track all lethal use of force data”. He told Tuesday’s hearing: “When I found that out, that was a shock to me.”

Improving the counting process was identified as one of three “critical elements” police must address by Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director of the NAACP’s legal defense and education Fund. “One of the most disturbing dimensions is the absence of reliable data,” Ifill told the hearing. “We need a national public database that documents police shootings, assaults and killings of unarmed individuals.” © Guardian News and Media 2015