The FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics are the foremost collectors and publishers of crime-related data in the United States. Any person with an Internet connection can see the national statistics on drug arrests, assaults and murders. But there is one violent act that neither of these organizations has deemed worthy enough to record on a national scale: the number of police shootings.
You can find out how many police officers were shot and/or killed in 2016 in a second, but it would be very hard to determine how many people were shot by police officers. Obviously it is well within their capabilities to record this information, so this begs the question: “Why don’t they?”
Officials from either of these organizations would probably tell you they don’t collect this data because they are not mandated to do so by Congress. Even though this excuse fits in nicely with the stereotypical “I’m just doing what I’m told” work ethic prevalent in government agencies, it seems likely that there is more than just a desire to do as little as possible behind this convenient policy.
National police shooting statistics were made available to the public it wouldn’t help any law enforcement agency in any way. In fact, it would only give people a solid statistic that could be used to criticize them. Common sense says that is why these statistics are not available. It seems they are not sharing this information because they don’t want us to know it. Full disclosure to the public is not a priority for the Justice Department, whereas a whitewashed public image certainly is.
A prime example of this information-withholding PR campaign can be found on the FBI website. There is of course zero information on police shootings, but there is an extensive article on how the investigation of police shootings should be handled in order to mold a positive public reaction. It discusses how police officers who shoot and kill people are victims of a cold, uncaring public. The article includes some telling quotes from anonymous law enforcement officers, like “I did not choose to take that man’s life…. He chose to die when he drew a gun on an officer. It was not my choice; it was his,” and “No one knows about the hundreds of instances when a police officer decides not to shoot. Perhaps, no one cares.” Can we just take a second here and absorb that last quote? Police officers should get a pat on the back for not shooting hundreds of people? Remember, this is on the FBI website.
The article assumes that police officers are 100% justified in shooting people every time, and its purpose is to give officers guidance through the tough time they will face after shooting someone. It makes no mention of the times when officers are found to have been in the wrong by shooting and often killing people. This article alone isn’t all that troubling since it is a worthy, information-rich topic, but having it on the website makes the lack of police shooting data all the more conspicuous.
The article and the lack of data are further examples of the “us vs. them” mentality prevalent in law enforcement. They seem to clam up and defend the actions of all officers and agencies as a default response, often regurgitating stock answers about how difficult and dangerous police officers’ jobs are. They rarely give the public the feeling that they are here on our behalf and with our interests at heart. The only time departments come out against an officer is when the evidence is so overwhelming that they cannot deny it any longer. Often times when police officers shoot someone, it is 100% justified, but sometimes it most certainly is not. If every single police shooting was completely necessary, why would they determine that the statistics should not be made public? The answer is that even beyond their duty to “protect and serve,” law enforcement officials have a code that runs even deeper: CYOA (Cover Your Own Ass).
There will always be people with contempt for law enforcement, even an illogical contempt in many cases. But policies like this lack of data is only furthering and expanding this contempt. It is time that law enforcement agencies remember that their job is to help and serve the people, to protect them from the small percentage of individuals that make society a worse place. Instead, they act more like some secretive, occupying army that is a completely separate entity from the rest of society.
Some local agencies do collect and make public the number of police shootings. It is time that everyone in the country is treated with the same respect. How can we fully trust law enforcement when they won’t disclose how many times they kill people? It is especially hard to trust them since some of those times involve wrongdoing on their part. They are the only ones that truly benefit from the right to remain innocent until proven guilty.
To continue to lurk in the shadows is only precipitating the distrust. They feel it is well within the public’s right to know the full extent of violence in the country. Why is it not our right to know when the police are involved? As the previously mentioned article states: “The proverbial ‘no comment’ often gives the impression that the police are hiding something.” Yes, my thoughts exactly.