Opinion
Reading Los Angeles: Join The Times' new book club
Opinion Opinion L.A.
Opinion

Why don't we know how often a Michael Brown is killed by police?

Why doesn't the federal government track killings by law-enforcement officers?
Statistics worth having: How often do police kill unarmed minorities?

The shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in suburban St. Louis has spotlighted a wide range of policy questions and social issues, from police training and militarization (evident with the response to the post-shooting protests) to the nation’s black-white divide over perceptions of racism, to the extension of urban-style poverty and unemployment to suburbia. The pivotal question, though, is how often do these killings occur? How often do police gun down unarmed black men on the nation’s streets?

It turns out no one knows, because federal statistics collectors and many local police departments don’t track violent encounters between officers and civilians. A cynic might see something nefarious in that. By not collecting and collating such data, law enforcement can hide the scope of misdeeds from the public as well as civil liberties activists and lawyers for the families of the dead.

But academics like Samuel Walker, who has long been frustrated by the lack of available data, see something more mundane at play. “It’s just not an urgent issue for them,” Walker says.

It should be. One of the first steps to solving a problem is to identify and quantify it. Anecdotally, and through media accounts, it seems clear that people – particularly African Americans – die in officer-involved shootings often enough to justify concerted efforts at finding fresh approaches.

But absent the data to define the scope, it’s difficult to prescribe solutions. Is racism a significant factor? Or do these deaths stem from documented tendencies by police to be more forceful while working in high poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately populated by minorities?

Police work can be dangerous, and officers often are forced to make life-and-death decisions in the blink of an eye as they confront people who, in this gun-crazy culture, often are armed. Those who choose law enforcement for a career deserve our thanks, and a certain amount of consideration for the difficult nature of the job. But that shouldn’t extend to turning a blind eye to bad performances, and abuses.

It’s also true that relatively few of the millions of encounters between law enforcement and civilians each year result in physical confrontation, and fewer still in the deaths of the innocent. But those that do demand close scrutiny by both police superiors and elected officials responsible for police agency oversight.

As it is, the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies tally and submit local crime statistics through the federal Uniform Crime Reports program overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The government also tracks deaths of law-enforcement officers at the hands of criminals. It would not be a significant challenge to add reporting components about the deaths of civilians at the hands of police officers.

Attorney General Eric Holder could easily make this happen with a directive, and he should do so. One indicator of what a society values lies in what it chooses to measure. That we don’t track these incidents, and understand them better, can be seen as an indictment of our ideals. 

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Where do 'religious freedom' acts mention gays or lesbians?
    Where do 'religious freedom' acts mention gays or lesbians?

    Poor Mike Pence. The Indiana governor, eyeing a long-shot presidential bid, probably didn't expect the hot mess he got himself into by signing his state's version of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, or RFRA. And it showed.

  • Malibu can't pass off guesthouses as low-income housing
    Malibu can't pass off guesthouses as low-income housing

     A judge’s recent ruling that the city of Malibu couldn’t count guesthouses toward its state-mandated plan for low-income housing came as something of a shock. Who knew Malibu was even required to think about low-income housing? Not much, mind you — just 188 units of...

  • Indiana law shows LGBT people the closet door
    Indiana law shows LGBT people the closet door

    In a private ceremony Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Senate Enrolled Act 101, the innocuous sounding Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It prevents state and local governments from enacting laws that would "substantially burden" a person's exercise of his or her religion....

  • Could the anti-immigrant loudmouths pass a U.S. citizenship test?
    Could the anti-immigrant loudmouths pass a U.S. citizenship test?

    To listen to talk radio and cable television, which are dominated by conservatives, the national and state debates over immigration give the impression that most legal residents of the state of California oppose immigrant workers here illegally and might even be favorably disposed to Mitt...

  • Raise the minimum wage, but don't forget about the cost of housing
    Raise the minimum wage, but don't forget about the cost of housing

    One of the best reasons to raise L.A.’s minimum wage is the region’s incredibly high cost of housing. Metropolitan Los Angeles is ranked the least affordable rental market in the nation because the city has a dual problem -- low incomes and high costs.

  • California bill aims to curb police adoption of military surplus
    California bill aims to curb police adoption of military surplus

    One of the surprising details that came to light during the recent debate over local police agencies outfitting themselves with surplus military equipment was the remarkable level of freedom police departments enjoyed in requesting weapons, armored personnel carriers, aircraft and other...

Comments
Loading