How many Americans do you think were killed by police in, let’s say, 2012? You don’t know? Neither do I, and neither does anyone else—including the FBI.
That’s not to say that the feds don’t try to keep up with the number of citizens knocked off by local law enforcement officers ever year. Police are asked to report killings to the FBI each year, but not strictly ordered to. You can imagine how eager most departments are to hand over their data.
The pitfalls of this volunteer-only approach are obvious, and the FBI’s data has long been known to be inaccurate. The statistical holes have led intrepid outsiders like the Gun Violence Archive to attempt their own comprehensive databases—our colleagues at Deadspin are working on one too—but in the absence of reliable self-reported data, it’s impossible to know whether anything is falling through the cracks.
Enter the Guardian, which is attempting to document every killing by U.S. police this year for its project The Counted (there have been 903 at the time of this writing). Guardian reporters obtained the FBI’s numbers for 2014, and found that the agency’s record-keeping is just as flailing and insufficient as you’d expect.
For starters, just 224 of the country’s roughly 18,000 local police departments opted into the reporting at all. Those departments do not include the NYPD or the Cleveland Police, meaning the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice—the sparks of nationwide protests and news coverage about police killings—are nowhere to be found in the U.S.’s official record of those killings.
This, of course, is an enormous oversight, and needs to be fixed somehow. Fortunately, we seem to be moving in the right direction. FBI director James Comey said last week that the agency’s lack of comprehensive data on crime of all kinds is “embarrassing and ridiculous,” and the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new open-source system for tracking use of force by law enforcement officers this month.