Justice Department Announces New Database for Tracking Fatalities in Police Custody

The Justice Department announced Thursday that it would start tracking nationwide data on fatal police shootings and other violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians, including natural deaths or suicides that occur while someone is in police custody.

The collection will rely on local police departments to self-report fatal interactions between police and civilians, a process of which many civil rights advocates are weary. The Justice Department says it will impose financial penalties on departments that do not cooperate with the reporting, but it is unclear exactly how these fines will be carried out.

The Justice Department has the power to impose these penalties under the Death in Custody Reporting Act, passed by Congress in 2014. However, the Act does not require local departments to provide information on nonlethal violent encounters. In addition, the Act does not change the fact that fatal police shootings are not included in total local or national homicide statistics.

There is currently no federal tracking system in place to monitor officer involved deaths. The Washington Post recently won a Pulitzer Prize for their database covering nationwide police shootings.  Analyzing such a database, comprising information from the over 18,000 police departments across the country, would greatly improve officer training, departmental guidelines, and attentiveness to the needs of a community. If a particular city sees a spike in violent police activity, it would justify the Justice Department’s quick direct intervention.

Police shootings of unarmed black men have rattled the country for the last two years, as activists advocate for improved policing standards and officer accountability. According to the Washington Post, 991 people were fatally shot by the police in 2015. So far this year, there have been 754 shooting deaths by police.

Young black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by a police officer. In 2015, black men between the ages of 15-34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths by police officers, despite making up only 2 percent of the population. Government mortality data finds that one in every 65 deaths of young black men in America occurs at the hands of the police.

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