Killings by US police logged at twice the previous rate under new federal program

US government pilot program, which draws on information collected by the Guardian, publishes first data gathered under new ‘hybrid’ counting system

A new US government program to count killings by police, which draws on data collected by the Guardian, has recorded a sharply higher number of deaths than previous official efforts.

Homicides by police were logged by the Department of Justice’s new system at more than twice the rate previously reported by the FBI, according to new data that was published by the department on Thursday.

Officials said their new method for counting “arrest-related deaths” should improve the “reliability, validity and comprehensiveness” of information on killings by police, after the weakness of previous efforts was exposed.

“These efforts result in improvements in data completeness and quality,” a report by officials working for the department’s bureau of justice statistics concluded.

The new “hybrid” system combines a review of open-source data, including the Guardian’s series The Counted, with a survey of local authorities. It recorded 270 homicides by officers in three months last year. The FBI said earlier this year that it had counted just 442 in all of 2015.

Duren Banks, the program’s lead statistician, said the trial had been “a success” compared to a previous incarnation, which was estimated to be catching only half of all arrest-related deaths before being temporarily shut down in 2014.

“We really went back to the drawing board to see what was working and what wasn’t, and to try to get a more comprehensive count of arrest-related deaths in the United States,” said Banks.

Controversy over the government’s lack of official data on killings by police was set off by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. The death of Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, led to protests and riots in the town and across the US.

The FBI’s annual count of homicides by police, which depends on chiefs voluntarily submitting their numbers, was discredited after it became clear that the method was recording less than half of all killings nationwide.

Better data on killings and the use of force by police officers was strongly recommended by a White House taskforce on policing convened by Barack Obama following the unrest in Ferguson. More protests were sparked in Baltimore and other cities amid more questionable deaths of black men at the hands of police.

Reforms to data collection were announced last year after James Comey, the FBI director, said it was “unacceptable” that The Counted and a similar project by the Washington Post held better data on the issue than his own officials, a situation he said was “embarrassing and ridiculous”.

The Counted will draw to a close at the end of 2016 after working to record all deaths caused by law enforcement officers this year and in 2015. Readers continue to assist journalists in compiling the data by submitting tips or local media reports about deadly incidents.

The FBI is overhauling its own “justifiable homicides” count to include a wider range of incidents involving the use of force by police. But neither the FBI nor the bureau of justice statistics (BJS) has made clear what action they would take if departments simply refused to cooperate with the programs.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act, which was reauthorized by Congress in 2014, requires states receiving federal funding for law enforcement to report all killings by police officers on a quarterly basis. Many states have, however, continued to ignore the law without being penalized.

The BJS trial closely examined all deaths in custody – including suicides, accidents and some others – from June to August 2015. It initially identified 377 deaths through media reports and other publicly available sources, 268 of which were found to be homicides by officers.

Researchers then sent surveys to almost 500 police agencies and medical examiners linked to the deaths identified in their open-source review, asking them to confirm the deaths and inform them of any others. During this second phase, researchers identified an additional 48 deaths that were not reported in the media, two of which were homicides.

Of the agencies contacted by the BJS, about three-quarters responded to the program’s queries about arrest-related deaths, with 72% of agencies sending complete answers back to the bureau. Other agencies did not respond or denied that a death fell into the program’s scope.

Banks explained that response rates were largely due to an agency’s capacity to respond. Law enforcement officers in Texas and California, for example, are required to report deaths in custody, and thus had a high response rate throughout the pilot program, she said.

If the rate of homicides recorded by the justice department was consistent, a total of 1,080 would have been logged for all of 2015. The Guardian’s count, which uses slightly different criteria, ended at 1,146 last year. So far in 2016, it has recorded 1,025 deaths.

The report released by the BJS on Thursday did not include demographic information on the decedents, but Banks said the bureau expects to release aggregate racial and other demographic information in a future report.


Jon Swaine and Ciara McCarthy in New York

The GuardianTramp

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