FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech last Friday that the Bureau will release long-delayed statistics this spring on police use of force, giving the public its first glimpse of the federal government’s most comprehensive efforts to date to collect data on how, when, and where police use force around the country.
Launched three years ago, the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection program was in danger of being scuttled because of insufficient participation from police departments, but Wray announced that it has finally reached a threshold to begin publishing data that requires participation from 60 percent of law enforcement agencies.
Speaking at a conference of black law enforcement executives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Wray said that hitting the threshold “means that in the very near future, we’re going to be able to release our first statistics on the use-of-force, things like the top types of force used and resistance encountered, things like the overall percentages we’re seeing for kinds of incidents and the reasons for initial contact.”
The Justice Department vowed to overhaul its data collection programs regarding police use of force in 2015, following reporting from The Washington Post and other media outlets that showed the FBI’s tally of fatal police shootings in the U.S., self-reported by police departments, vastly undercounted the true number of people killed by police. Despite the intense public attention surrounding police killings, there was simply no reliable federal government data on how, when, or where police officers employed by the roughly 18,000 departments across the country used deadly force.
However, the federal government can’t force police departments to submit reports. Since the FBI launched the program in 2019, police department participation has steadily risen but never met the threshold set by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to obtain data from 60 percent of law enforcement agencies before any statistics can be published.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report warned in December that, “due to insufficient participation from law enforcement agencies, the FBI faces risks that it may not meet the participation thresholds” established by the OMB, “and therefore may never publish use of force incident data.”
“Further, the collection itself may be discontinued as soon as the end of 2022,” the GAO report said.
The threshold is meant to ensure that the data reflects a majority of law enforcement officers, but it also means that the FBI has been sitting on a large but unpublished trove of data, frustrating civil liberties groups and researchers.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has been trying to obtain raw reports from law enforcement agencies submitted to the FBI program. However, the FBI has rejected its Freedom of Information Act requests, and the Justice Department has denied the Leadership Conference’s appeal.
“The FBI’s use-of-force data collection has been shrouded in secrecy from the outset, which is why we were requesting greater access to the information,” Sakira Cook, senior director of the Justice Reform Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Reason earlier this month. “Regardless of the FBI’s excuses for keeping these records private, let’s be clear: This data should be publicly available.”
It now appears that at least some summary statistics will be released. Wray said that more granular data will be released if an 80 percent threshold is met.
But that is up to the police departments.