As racial tensions simmer over the shooting deaths of black men at the hands of police, everyone -- including the federal government, protesters and cops themselves -- has had to rely on anecdotal reports and woefully incomplete statistics to assess the problem.
The FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics, which handle official crime and law enforcement stats, rely on individual police departments to tell them when their officers have taken lives in the line of duty. But reporting has been voluntary, and even the departments providing that information often don't include demographics or other key details.
As a result, only about half of deaths at the hands of police are counted in official reports, according to The Guardian, and several different groups have tried to compile their own databases, with mixed results. Most of those databases tally the killings by media reports, but not every police-related killing is reported in newspapers, and whole swaths of the country are underserved -- or not covered at all -- by print or online media.
Now, the federal government hopes to change that by requiring individual police departments to report all “arrest-related deaths."
Reporting deaths that occurred in confrontations with police will not only be mandatory, but the government will require police departments to provide standardized reports that include information like race, sex, age and the circumstances of death.
In all, there are 19,450 state and local law enforcement agencies subject to the new program, and the numbers will be checked against the records of 685 medical examiner’s offices, the New York Daily News reported.
Citing "concerns about variations in data collection methodology and coverage," federal officials hope for "accurate and comprehensive accounting of deaths that occur during the process of arrest," according to an Aug. 4 notice in the Federal Register.
The government also cited the need for transparency and a firm grip on the scope of the problem to be able to address it.
Third-party efforts to count police killings have been conducted by The Guardian, with its "The Counted" project, and The Washington Post, with its police shootings database. The Post counted 990 people shot dead by police in 2015, while The Guardian counted 1,134.
The differences are partially explained by methodology, but underscore the need for an accurate, official database with context information.