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FBI Fails to Track Police Use of Force

by Jayson Hawkins

The summer of 2020 was a moment marked by extremes—vast populations around the world were quarantined in their homes for months, interrupted by an eruption of millions onto the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by police. Law enforcement’s reaction to the demonstrations varied considerably from city to city, ranging from attempts at peaceful containment to precisely the sort of mindless violence that was being protested.

In an analysis of over 7,300 such events covering every state in May and June, the New York Times determined that chemical agents like tear gas were deployed at 183 of them. That accounted for 2.5% of the demonstrations, which may not seem high, but the choice to use agents that attack the respiratory system garnered justifiable criticism in the midst of a global pandemic of a respiratory virus.

In one city alone, hundreds of people gassed by police have experienced health issues related to their chemical exposure. In an investigation of local police departments that opted to employ teargas against their residents, The Guardian chose 18 of them to examine for violent trends. Initially, The Guardian had asked the FBI to provide the data, as the agency had been instructed to gather such information following protests over the deaths of Black men at the hands of police in 2014. It came as a disappointment, though perhaps not a surprise, when six years later, the FBI had yet to succeed at even this minor attempt at transparency.

To be fair, the failure has not entirely been the FBI’s fault. Participation in the data sharing program has never been mandatory, and law enforcement agencies already struggling with public image problems have been hesitant to hand over information that might reveal them in an even harsher light. Individuals like Gina Hawkins, head of the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection Task Force, have been educating and encouraging police departments to take part in the program. Despite such efforts, as of May 2021, only 40% of police departments nationwide were divulging their use-of-force reports to the FBI every month.

“I never imagined in 2016, when I started, this would be going on in 2021,” said Hawkins, “I never thought it’d take this long.”

Although the FBI is nearing the milestone of participation from half the nation’s police departments, the collected data will not be made public unless or until 80% of the agencies are involved. That leaves the task of recording police killings up to private entities, and both the Washington Post and The Guardian started keeping tabs in 2015.

Because the FBI will not share the limited data it does have, The Guardian contacted 18 cities directly. Half of them sent back information of some sort, just two of which could be considered substantial. The lack of common data points made it impossible to compare the agencies, though an obvious trend of higher rates of use-of-force against people of color stood out.

The activist organization Campaign Zero, also frustrated by the federal failure to gather facts, began their Mapping Police Violence campaign in 2015. Since then they have requested public records from around 500 of the nation’s biggest police departments.

Co-founder Sam Sinyangwe said analysis of the 100 largest agencies revealed that 44% of the unarmed individuals killed by cops in those cities were Black, even though Blacks accounted for just 21% of the population. From the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2020, 38% of all people killed by law enforcement were Black.

Police are aware their actions have come under scrutiny, but rather than reform their tactics, some agencies have begun manipulating how their actions are reported. Sinyangwe pointed out that the police department in Dallas sometimes labels the hands of people they have shot as weapons.

Despite difficulties in the collection of data and the accuracy of the information itself, activists remain committed to building a database of police violence where the FBI has fallen short.

“Transparency is important to help build support for what solutions should look like,” said Sinyangwe. 



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