Obama Task Force Calls for Reform and More Accountability in U.S. Police Departments

Day six of protests in Ferguson (Loavesofbread/Wikimedia)
Day six of protests in Ferguson, MO after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. (Loavesofbread/Wikimedia)

President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a report with dozens of recommendations for improving relations between police departments and the communities they serve, including calls for more accurate reporting of officer-involved fatalities and independent criminal investigations of those incidents.

The interim report lists the findings of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a 3-month effort to investigate policing practices across the nation. Co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the initiative was commissioned in the wake of several high profile shootings of unarmed black men last year that exposed deep rifts in trust between many communities of color and the police forces meant to protect them.

"The events in Ferguson and New York exposed a deep-rooted frustration in many communities of color about the need for fair and just law enforcement," President Obama said during the brief ceremony on Monday at the White House. "We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled ... feel fully supported."

The report also encourages police departments nationwide to adopt more community-focused policing strategies and provide better officer training to de-escalate potentially violent situations, including minimizing the use of military equipment during protests. While noting the value of police body cameras, the report stops short of recommending their widespread use, citing privacy concerns.

Included in the report is a reference to a 1994 law requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and to publish an annual summary.” But it notes the necessary funds have never been allocated to meet that objective. The problem underscores a larger challenge the federal government faces: with roughly 18,000 independent police agencies across the country, most law enforcement remains at the local level, with few legally binding reporting requirements.

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That means many agencies decline to report potentially sensitive information -- like the number of officer-involved shootings -- to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting national incident database, resulting in dramatically underreported figures.

As the Lowdown wrote about last month, officer-involved fatalities are vastly underreported. The closest thing to an official government tally is classified in the FBI’s annual Supplementary Homicide Report as “justifiable homicide” by law enforcement. In 2013, the last year for which data were available, the FBI reported 461 justifiable homicides by law enforcement, with a yearly average of 420.4 reported since 2009.

But several crowd-sourced reporting projects show significantly higher figures. Among the most reliable of the batch we examined is Killed By Police, an anonymously managed project that compiles mainstream media reports submitted by individual users through Facebook. It began collecting data in May 2013, and in the last eight months of that year alone tallied 764 reports of officer-involved fatalities. 1101 incidents were tallied for the entirety of 2014, and 184 incidents have be tallied to date for 2015.

We looked specifically at officer-involved deaths in California in 2014, verifying the media sources for each included incident. For the whole year, we calculated a total 156 incidents involving civilians killed by police. This does not include incidents involving off-duty officers or police car accidents. The map below shows these results.

Mouseover each marker for the name of the victim. Click on the marker for the date and location of the incident, the victim's age and race (if known), the officer's name (if known) and the news source link(s). Zoom in for more specific detail or search by city or ZIP code (at top right).