FBI will revamp system for tracking deaths caused by police shootings
Police officer aiming gun at car (Shutterstock)

By Tom McCarthy, Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland

Move comes after sustained criticism of agency, whose director admitted it was ‘embarrassing’ that Guardian had better data on police use of force

The FBI plans to overhaul its system for counting the number of deaths caused by police in the US, according to federal officials, and will begin releasing information about deadly encounters involving the use of Tasers and other force, in addition to fatal shootings.

Responding to months of sharp criticism over its existing program for reporting fatal shootings by police officers, the bureau is to unveil a new system that will publish a wider range of data, resembling that currently collected by an ongoing Guardian investigation.

Stephen Fischer, a senior official in the FBI’s criminal justice information services division in West Virginia, said it had “identified a need for more robust and complete information about encounters between law enforcement officers and citizens that result in a use of force”.

Officials said statisticians were intending to count deadly incidents involving physical force, Tasers and blunt weapons used by officers as well as firearms, and that they planned to begin gradually publishing some more information about fatal incidents as soon as 2016.

The bureau has for several years published an annual total of fatal shootings by police officers that are termed “justifiable homicides”. The country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, however, are under no obligation to report any killings by their officers.

The Guardian disclosed in October that only 224 departments reported a killing last year. The FBI’s total number of deaths has ranged from 397 to 461 since 2009.

By Tuesday evening, the Counted, a Guardian database published since June 1, had recorded 1,058 deaths caused by law enforcement officers so far this year. A Washington Post database restricted to fatal shootings by officers, which has been published since 1 July, had counted 913 of those so far in 2015.

James Comey, the director of the FBI, said in October it was “ridiculous and embarrassing” that the Guardian and Washington Post kept better data on the topic than the federal government. “That is not good for anybody,” he said.

Fischer said “such details as age, sex, and race of the officers and subjects” were also likely to be published by the FBI from now on, as well as the circumstances of the encounter and the relationship between the officer and subject.

These details have been collected for years and a decade’s worth of such information was obtained by the Guardian in October. They have not, however, been published among the headline figures of the FBI’s annual count.

Brittany Packnett, a member of President Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing and a campaigner against excessive force by police, said the announcement should be just “the very first step” in official efforts to reform police accountability throughout the US.

“I am anxious to see what the the FBI releases,” said Packnett. “I hope that it is released quickly and I hope, with as much urgency, they will also to do something about it.

“Frankly, I’m glad to see the FBI and another branch of the federal government catching up to what the people have been demanding for a long time.”

The FBI count will ultimately remain voluntary, however, meaning the bureau is likely to remain under pressure to work harder to push departments to report their deadly incidents. Some campaigners have placed more hopes in a second new government system for counting killings by police, in which officials will proactively seek reports of officer-involved homicides and make follow-up inquiries with local authorities for more information.

This open-source system, which was announced by attorney general Loretta Lynch in October, is being trialled by the department’s bureau of justice statistics and is expected to be expanded into a fully operational program.

Its methodology closely resembles that of the Counted and it, too, is expected to collect data on deadly incidents involving force other than firearms. Officials said the Guardian database was among their sources.

Concerted calls from campaigners and lawmakers for better official data on police killings emerged after a nationwide debate about race and policing was sparked by protests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.