Without adequate, comprehensive national data on fatal police interactions exists, abuses are difficult to identify and fix
[MEMPHIS, TN] – A bill introduced earlier this year by Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, would close a loophole in federal law that makes it easier for local law enforcement agencies, including one in South Carolina where an officer has been charged with shooting an unarmed man in the back, to hide police shootings from the public. Congressman Cohen’s National Statistics on Deadly Force Transparency Act (H.R.306) would ensure that adequate, comprehensive national data regarding justified and unjustified fatal interactions with police is reported and made available to the American people.
“Without clear video showing that he shot an unarmed man in the back 8 times, North Charleston police officer Michael Slager might not have been charged for the murder of Walter Scott,” said Congressman Cohen. “But because of a loophole in federal law, it’s also possible that we would have never even heard about this shooting at all. Right now, we can’t tell the American people how many lives were ended by police officers this year, or any year. Before we can truly address the problem of excessive force used by law enforcement we have to understand the nature of the problem and that begins with accurate data. Congress must pass my National Statistics on Deadly Force Act so our nation can begin to fix these racial disparities and other problems in our justice system.”
In February, FBI Director James Comey stated that it is “ridiculous that [he] can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year.” Director Comey also suggested that police departments nationwide should be required to report shootings that involve police officers so that these numbers can be tracked. Without accurate and comprehensive data, racial disparities, abuses, and instances of excessive use of force are difficult to identify and unlikely to be fixed.
The 1994 Crime Bill requires the Attorney General to collect statistics on the use of excessive force, but the law does not provide any enforcement mechanism nor does it adequately define what “excessive force” is. As a result, the federal government has been unable to gather data from many local police departments and there are no reliable statistics on how often law enforcement uses deadly force. Congressman Cohen’s legislation, which has 10 cosponsors, would incentivize states to require local law enforcement agencies to provide data to the Attorney General on:
- The date of each instance when deadly force was used;
- The identifying characteristics of the victim and officer involved, including the race, gender, ethnicity, religion and approximate age of the victim;
- Any alleged criminal behavior by the victim;
- An explanation, if any, by the relevant law enforcement agency of why deadly force was used;
- A copy of any use of deadly force guidelines in effect at the time at the law enforcement agency;
- The nature of the deadly force used, including whether it involved a firearm; and
- A description of any non-lethal efforts that were taken before deadly force was used.
This data would be made publicly available, but would not disclose any personally identifying information. Congressman Cohen also plans to introduce legislation this year that would require incidents of deadly force used by police to be investigated and, if need be, prosecuted, by an independent prosecutor. The legislation will address the current conflict of interest between local police and the prosecuting District Attorneys, who rely on a close working relationship with those same police officers to carry out other prosecutorial duties. Congressman Cohen is a sponsor of the Police (Creating Accountability by Making Effective Recording Available) CAMERA Act, which would assist police departments with the purchasing or leasing of body-worn cameras for their officers.