Focus on Force: When police take aim, who's watching?

E.W. Scripps Special Report
Posted at 10:19 AM, Oct 24, 2016

In Cincinnati, Sam DuBose was missing a front license plate.

In Cleveland, Tamir Rice was playing with a pellet gun.

In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarettes.

When their minor infractions escalated, each was shot and killed by police in their communities. The details behind their deaths are now part of a growing catalog of facts that are reshaping the way Americans perceive law enforcement in their communities.

“Where is this shoot-first mentality coming from?” said Aubrey DuBose, whose brother, Sam DuBose, was shot and killed by former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing during a July 2015 traffic stop. Tensing pleaded not guilty to murder charges and will face a jury trial starting Oct. 31.

“There should be a third party,” Aubrey DuBose said. “Someone to police the police and monitor them.”

Despite heartfelt community memorials and waves of protests calling for more accountability, no one knows just how often – or why -- police in the U.S. choose to use their guns.

That's because the U.S. government doesn't have a system to track officer-involved shootings nationally, and only nine states require such data to be reported. New efforts to begin to collecting the details don't go far enough, experts say, because participation by law enforcement agencies remains voluntary.

“If we’re going to reduce the phenomena of officer-involved shootings, then we have to understand it better,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for improved policing across the nation’s more than 19,000 state and local law enforcement departments.

“We have to have a granulated view of what is happening during those violent confrontations between the police and people,” Bueermann said. “We’re not going to do that unless we have a centralized database where we can compare and contrast what’s happening across the country.”

Voluntary Versus Mandatory

When local law enforcement agencies release reports about crime in our communities going up or down, the statistics are often based on details they give to the FBI under its Uniform Crime program.

But since the program’s launch in 1930, participation by local law enforcement agencies has been completely voluntary.

“There is no obligation on the part of any police departments in the country, or sheriff’s departments or state police, to report to that system,” Bueermann said.

The debate about how best to track police-involved shootings and other uses of force now centers around whether law enforcement data collection and reporting should be mandatory.

Audrey DuBose speaks in Cincinnati about the shooting death of her son Sam DuBose

“The capacity and technology is there to do this, and the need for it, in terms of transparency, is huge,” said Al Gerhardstein, the Cincinnati-based civil rights attorney who represented Sam DuBose's family in a wrongful death suit against the University of Cincinnati.

In the absence of a comprehensive tracking system, a patchwork of incomplete data collection and reporting programs exists across state and federal levels.

While the FBI attempts to keep a database of officer-involved shootings, on average less than two percent of the country’s more than 19,000 law enforcement agencies report the data they collect.

“We simply aren’t collecting the data we need in order find out if there’s a problem or how severe it is,” Gerhardstein said. “If we don’t shine a light on this, how are we going to learn from what’s happened?”

It's a system that's set up for failure.

Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, agreed. In December, the Cuyahoga County grand jury announced that no charges would be brought against the officers involved in her son’s shooting death more than a year earlier. The family is still awaiting the release of findings from independent investigation under way by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“For the government not to make sure that these are being reported… it’s not doing anyone in America any good,” Rice said. “It’s a system that’s set up for failure.”

‘Disconnected system’ hampers efforts

A fragmented system for collecting information at the state level complicates the creation of a national database, Bueerman said.

“We have 50 different states with 50 different sets of laws that regulate the police use of force and so it’s a very disconnected system for trying to understand this," he said.

From state to state, the details and data collected -- such as race of the individuals involved or the availability of police body cameras or dash cams -- vary widely.

“We want to make certain that people put all this information in context. Every incident is different," said Jonathan Thompson, National Sheriffs' Association executive director. “It’s very difficult to see a number or a name on a piece of paper or on a computer screen and thoroughly understand the interaction that may have been taking place.”

Only recently have some states begun requiring that local agencies track officer-involved shootings.

Months before the Baltimore Police Department arrested 25-year-old Freddie Gray Jr., who later died in custody from injuries to his spinal cord, Maryland proposed and eventually passed such a law in 2015. Four other states -- California, Colorado, Illinois and Texas -- that year passed laws requiring a state agency to analyze and provide detailed information about officer-involved shootings. 

A protester holds a sign with Mike Brown's likeness in Oakland, California, on Dec. 4 after a grand jury decided not to indict an officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

So far this year, only Virginia has passed similar legislation.

Two years after the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, the state of Missouri still doesn’t have a law mandating officer-involved shootings be reported to any state agencies.

In Ohio, where DuBose and Rice were fatally shot, more than 92 percent of the state’s nearly 1,000 law enforcement agencies voluntarily report use of force incidents to the state-based Incident Based Reporting System. The state is also in the process of creating an online database that will pull in media accounts, coroner records and police reports for any deadly use of force.

But those efforts fall short of guaranteeing that all incidents will be recorded and analyzed, Gerhardstein said.

“It’s still all self-reported data by the agencies,” Gerhardstein said. “The transparency has to start at the local level, then it can be expanded to the state.”

“It’s Not Going Away”

As pressure mounts for more transparency, the U.S. Department of Justice announcedplans in August to step up recordkeeping nationwide. 

The proposal calls for:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics to begin collecting data on deaths in police custody.

The bureau will rely on “open record sources” for its data collection -- which primarily includes media reports, followed by requests for data from coroner offices and law enforcement agencies.

All 19,450 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. will be asked to report quarterly any arrest-related deaths and “circumstances surrounding the death.”

But the effort has serious flaws, according to a host of national civil rights groups including NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, who earlier this month sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  

Among the groups’ top concerns:

The proposal relies too heavily on media accounts and statistics for reporting purposes, an approach the groups call “an inadequate method of collecting data to determine the circumstances under which people die while in law enforcement custody.”
“The proposal does not provide a clear definition for the term custody, particularly in instances where a fatal police shooting has occurred without an arrest.”
“The proposal does not discuss penalties for noncompliance. A financial penalty is critical to successful implementation… as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed.”
“To ensure more agencies comply, the civil rights groups argue that any law enforcement agency that receives federal funding should be required to collect and report data on incidents of police use of force.”


“States and law enforcement agencies, the entities closest to the data being sought, should be responsible for collecting and reporting deaths in custody to the federal government,” the letter states. “It will be difficult…to get an accurate picture of trends in custodial deaths if state and local law enforcement agencies are not held accountable for collecting data after a death occurs.”

 Until transparency improves, the public’s confidence in their communities’  policing efforts will continue to erode, Bueermann said.  

"Today, public trust and confidence in the police is framed around use of force, almost entirely,” Bueermann said. “(This issue) it’s not going way. It’s just going to get worse.”

Focus on Force is an ongoing E.W. Scripps analysis of the local, state and federal governments efforts to track and better understand police and community interactions.

PHOTO CREDITS | (Large images, in order from top) 1. Protesters face off with police July 9 in Baton Rouge. Picture by Mark Wallheiser, Getty Images. 2. Riot police advance on protestors in Baltimore on April 30. Picture by Andrew Burton, Getty Images.  3. Protesters march Dec. 29, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio, after grand jury declines to indict Cleveland Police officer Timothy Loehmann in shooting of Tamir Rice