Senate Testimony: FBI Needs More Officer-Involved Incident Data

New priorities were outlined for the FBI in Wednesday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the agency’s oversight and show new emphasis on nationwide police use of force data.

by / December 10, 2015
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The FBI has been given new priorities when it comes to data.

A Wednesday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on the agency’s oversight and outlined the new priorities, which show a new emphasis on nationwide police use of force data.

After the Washington Post and UK-based Guardian newspapers published their own databases dedicated to police-involved shootings in the United States, the federal law enforcement agency has come under fire for its lack of such a resource. 

FBI Director James Comey has gone as far as calling the lack of such a database “embarrassing and ridiculous."

In written testimony, Comey outlined the agency’s priorities, including the need for better data collection in relation to police use of force incidents — something the bureau will begin collecting and reporting, according to Comey's "Message from the Director" that accompanies the FBI's Crime in the U.S. 2014 report, released Sept. 28.

"We need more law enforcement agencies to submit their justifiable homicide data so that we can better understand what is happening across the country," he wrote in his message. "Once we receive this data, we will add a special publication that focuses on law enforcement’s use of force in shooting incidents that will outline facts about what happened, who was involved, the nature of injuries or deaths, and the circumstances behind these incidents."

In his Dec. 9 testimony, Comey reiterated the need for "more and better data related to officer-involved shootings and altercations" with citizens, attacks against law enforcement officers and criminal activity of all kinds.

"For decades, the Uniform Crime Reporting program has used information provided by law enforcement agencies to measure crime," he wrote. "While knowing the number of homicides, robberies, and other crimes from any given year is useful, the data is not timely, and it does not go far enough to help us determine how and why these crimes occurred, and what we can do to prevent them."

The lack of mandatory report among the nation’s more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies compounds the problem of acquiring accurate, timely information. According to his statements, Comey said that only one-third of state, local and tribal agencies supply their statistics to the FBI.

“We need to improve the way we collect and analyze data so that we see the full scope of what is happening in our communities. One way to do this is to increase participation in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)," he said. "NIBRS includes more than mere summary statistics — the numbers of robberies or homicides across the country each year. It gives the context of each incident, giving us a more complete picture. We can use it to identify patterns and trends, and to prevent crime. We also need a system to capture the use of force statistics on all non-fatal/fatal police officer-involved incidents. We can use this information to tell us where we may have problems, and what we need to do to improve the way we police our communities.”

At an Oct. 22 House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, the director said increasingly polarization between law enforcement and communities throughout the country continues to pose problems for trust and collaboration.

“Something very disturbing is happening in this country right now in law enforcement and in violent crime. I imagine two lines, one being us in law enforcement and the other being the communities we serve and protect, especially communities of color,” he said. “Those two lines over the last year or so have been arcing away from each other and that continues. Each incident that involves police misconduct, or perceived misconduct, bends one line away. Each time an officer is killed or attacked in the line of duty, bends the other line farther away.”

When asked if he stood by his comments condemning the agencies lack of a use of force database, Comey answered in the affirmative. He said data was needed to drive the conversation.

“I think it’s embarrassing for those of us in government who care deeply about these issues, especially the use of force by law enforcement, that we can’t have an informed discussion because we don’t have data,” he said. “People have data about how many people went to a movie last weekend, how many books were sold or how many cases of the flu walked into an emergency room, and I cannot tell you how many people were shot by police in the United States last month, last year or anything about the demographics. And that’s a very bad place to be.”

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.