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FBI hiding an unpublished police use-of-force database from FOIA requesters

by Brooke Kaufman 

For years, the FBI has been collecting information from police departments on their use of force. “Lackluster participation” from law enforcement, however, has prevented the agency from publishing public reports or statistics based on the data.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights doesn’t buy this excuse and has accused the FBI and Justice Department of “stonewalling” its efforts to obtain law enforcement reports submitted to the National Use-of-Force Data Collection program. The civil rights group had its FOIA requests rejected by the FBI and its subsequent appeal denied by the Justice Department.

The FBI launched its data collection program in 2019. But news outlets and advocacy groups were steps ahead, having created their own databases to track fatal police shootings — as well as “uses of force like tasings and physical strikes” — following the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014. As a response, in 2015, the Justice Department promised to “overhaul” its own data collection efforts.

“Right now, police departments are not required to — and most do not — publicly report data, and what data does exist is often inconsistent and difficult to access,” Sakira Cook, senior director of the Justice Reform Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement to Reason. “That means we don’t know enough about when, where, and how often police use force. This lack of transparency is unacceptable and hurts communities trying to advocate for change and hold law enforcement accountable.”

Police department participation in the FBI program has increased since its launch but has never met the Office of Management and Budget’s threshold “to obtain data representing 60 percent of law enforcement officers” before statistics can be published. In December 2021, the Government Accountability Office said “the collection itself may be discontinued as soon as the end of 2022” if law enforcement participation remains negligible.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights submitted its first FOIA request in November 2020. The Leadership Conference maintains its own database with records from 150 jurisdictions, but Cook said access to FBI data would open the door on “thousands of other police departments.” The FOIA request, however, was denied in March 2021 for being “overly broad” — a rejection Cook said “flies in the face of the entire FOIA system.”

Cook said the focus remains on eliminating the secrecy under which FBI use-of-force data collection operates and making these records publicly available.

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