Why the US can’t keep track of people killed by police

A protester holds an image of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Relatively little public discussion has centered on how a federal count would actually work. Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters

A year ago, in a bureaucratic shift that went unremarked in the somnolent days before Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, the US government admitted a disturbing failure. The top crime-data experts in Washington had determined that they could not properly count how many Americans die each year at the hands of police. So they stopped.

The move did not make headlines. Before Brown was killed, a major government effort to count people killed by police could be mothballed without anybody noticing. The program was never fully funded, and no one involved was accustomed to their technical daily work drawing a spotlight.

But it had been a major effort. For the better part of a decade, a specialized team of statisticians within the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) — number-crunchers working several nesting dolls deep inside the Justice Department — had been collecting data on what they called arrest-related deaths. The ARD tally was more than a count of killings by police. It was meant to be the elusive key to a problem that seemed easy to understand but difficult to define. The program set out to track any death, of anyone, that happened in the presence of a local or state law enforcement officer.

A victim like Michael Brown, shot dead in the process of arrest, would make the count. A victim like Akai Gurley, shot dead in Brooklyn not in the process of arrest, would make the count. A victim like Eric Garner, choked and squeezed to death on Staten Island in the process of arrest, would make the count. A victim like Tamir Rice, shot dead in Cleveland at 12 years old with no arrest attempt made at all, would make the count, along with many other victims.

Read more