The head of the FBI has said it is “ridiculous [and] embarrassing” that the federal government has no better information on police shootings than databases compiled by the Guardian US and the Washington Post.
“It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between [US] police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” said James Comey, the FBI director, on Wednesday.
“You can get online and figure out how many tickets were sold to The Martian ... the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] can do the same with the flu,” he continued. “It’s ridiculous – embarrassing and ridiculous – that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
The Guardian is counting the people killed by US law enforcement agencies this year. Read their stories and contribute to our ongoing, crowdsourced project
Comey was speaking at a summit on reducing violent crime convened by the US justice department, a private gathering of more than 100 politicians and top law-enforcement officials, the Washington Post reported.
The Guardian is counting all deaths caused by police and law enforcement in 2015, and collecting extensive details on each incident and those killed. A total of 891 deaths this year have been recorded by The Counted, a crowdsourced investigative project. The Washington Post, which has a similar project, has documented 758 deaths this year.
On Monday, the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, announced a pilot open-source programme to count killings by police around the country. It is the most comprehensive official effort so far to accurately record the number of deaths at the hands of US police. The move follows calls from campaigners and lawmakers for better official data on police killings, after a nationwide debate about racism and policing was sparked by protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Federal officials currently rely on local police to report shootings involving officers, but reporting is voluntary and typically occurs months after the fact. The FBI counted 444 “justifiable homicides” by law-enforcement officers in 2014, a 5.7% decrease from the 471 counted the year before.
But both the accuracy of the figures and any trends emerging from them have been called into question because of the voluntary reporting system. The justice department and the FBI have resisted calls for a mandatory reporting system, calling for more data on fatal police shootings but keeping the voluntary reporting system.
Lynch said last week that her department did not want to dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutiae of record-keeping. She subsequently clarified her statements, insisting that information on police shootings was “vital”.
At the violence summit, mayors, police chiefs and state attorneys general said the lack of data was contributing to a dangerous trend in which police officers shunned aggressive tactics for fear of becoming the next officer to be caught on camera in a compromising situation.