FBI is smart to track when and why police fire their guns

The day after Christmas, police officers in Lakeland, Florida, fatally shot a 17-year-old. Police say the young man was driving a stolen car in a crowded parking lot and tried to hit an officer. It was one of 63 fatal police shootings in Florida in 2018, according to The Washington Post’s tally of police shooting nationwide.

For years, Americans have had to rely on unofficial media counts like the Post’s, because the federal government didn’t track police shootings. That changed on Jan. 1 when the FBI launched its National Use-of-Force Data Collection Task Force. Finally, an official data set will shed light on officer-involved shootings, and it will include details that will help people understand the nuances of a difficult issue.

The lack of reliable information about officer-involved shootings has hampered discussions about use of force and reforming law enforcement. Some communities do an admirable job of reporting police shootings. Orlando, for example, maintains a database on its website. Other locales are content to avoid the uncomfortable conversations that occur around police shootings, especially when white officers shoot black or Hispanic suspects.

News media organizations have tried to fill the information gap, but they can do only so much. They don’t have access to all the information that law enforcement agencies collect locally, and they lack the reporters on the ground to check in with every jurisdiction. They also don’t agree on what to track. The Washington Post tracks when police kill someone, but other organizations track every time a cop fires a weapon or a suspect is wounded.

Those third-party efforts also usually leave out crucial context. The headline is how many shootings there were in a month or a year, but there’s much more to the story. For example, when an off-duty police officer shoots someone, should that count as a police shooting? Depends which tally you check. Likewise, who initiated the confrontation? Did someone call in a report about a youth with a gun, or did police approach someone on the street for little reason?

Without the details that fill out the narrative, public conversations about police department policies and accountability too easily turn into blunt shouting.

The FBI’s new database aims to enable a better discussion. It will track the specifics of incidents that previous tallies could not, such as details about the officers and the victims. The goal isn’t to facilitate investigations into individual incidents but to provide a broad data set for national and comparative analysis. The FBI will release statistics at least twice per year that will help researchers, reporters, community activists and anyone else better understand trends in police shootings.

There’s a glaring problem though: Participation is optional. Local law enforcement agencies will report shootings only if they choose to. Some will bow out to avoid uncomfortable scrutiny. Others simply won’t have the resources to compile the stats needed.

In South Florida, the Broward Sheriff’s Office not only plans to take part, it has been participating for about three years, helping in the development and trial phase of the FBI program. The Miami-Dade Police Department also plans to submit its statistics. As Director Juan J. Perez told the Editorial Board in an email: “It is critical to law enforcement that this data be maintained at a national level in order to exhibit transparency and provide an accurate depiction of police use-of-force incidents.

“Public access to such data will undoubtedly lead to improved relationships with the communities we serve while helping build greater trust of our law enforcement professionals.”

We urge other South Florida law-enforcement departments to recognize, as does Perez, the value of having a reliable federal database of police shooting incidents and taking part.

However, if participation nationwide is spotty, the FBI and Congress should consider upping the pressure. Threatening to withhold federal funds might convince some reluctant departments to embrace this need for transparency.

The public entrusts law enforcement with tremendous power. In return, law enforcement must remain accountable to the public, and that requires accurate data about the most challenging circumstances.

Such mutual trust is critical. It may save lives.