Day 6

Why is it so hard to find official data on fatal US police shootings?

This week, two more black men — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — were killed by police officers. FBI data show U.S. police kill African Americans at disproportionate rates. But two years after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it's still difficult if not impossible to know how often it's actually happening. Journalist Donovan X. Ramsey explains why that is and weighs in on the consequences of not even tracking the problem.
Tia Williams, left, and her daughter Aissa create a display on the street outside the Minnesota governor's official residence to protest the shooting death of Philando Castile by police. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice, Eric GarnerSandra Bland.

And now, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

The list of names of African Americans killed by police officers in America grew longer this week.

And the deaths of Sterling and Castile have ignited new anger about racial disparities in the justice system.

FBI numbers show that police kill black people at disproportionate rates. Data from 2012 suggests that while African Americans make up 13 percent of the American population, they accounted for 31 per cent of the people killed by police that year.

But those numbers are incomplete.

For a lot of people, it's out of sight, out of mind.- Donovan X. Ramsey

That's because police use of force is not actually being recorded in any official capacity. There is no federal agency keeping track of the number of people killed by police in the United States.

Demonstrators chant during a "Black Lives Matter" protest in front of the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., July 7. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

The government isn't tracking the problem

As journalist and Demos Emerging Voices fellow Donovan X. Ramsey tells Day 6 guest host Gill Deacon, there is no legal requirement for the country's roughly 18,000 police departments to record or report their own local statistics. Those that do report incidents of police altercations and fatalities do so on a voluntary basis.

If you are not a person of colour, in particular a young male person of colour, then you are not experiencing the worst of what's happening on the street.- Donovan X. Ramsey

Ramsey finds that shocking — and troubling.

"If you are not a person of colour, in particular a young male person of colour, then you are not experiencing the worst of what's happening on the street. So for a lot of people it's out of sight, out of mind."

He notes that while it seems like a daunting task to gather such disparate bits of information, the federal government already has systems in place in other areas — like education, for example — to collect huge amounts of data from across the country and use it to shape policy. 

Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on Wednesday evening. Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday morning. (Facebook)

You can't fix what you can't measure

Ramsey argues that hard numbers are necessary to paint a clear picture of the extent of the problem.

​"Too often, unarmed black men in particular are killed by police. I think that's something that has to be supported by numbers, and those numbers can teach us about the circumstances in which these are happening. With that information we can better train these officers​ and possibly prevent some of these deaths."

Diamond Reynolds weeps after she recounts the incidents that led to the fatal shooting of her boyfriend Philando Castile by Minneapolis area police during a traffic stop. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

Ramsey remains hopeful. He says this year's presidential election campaign provides a real opportunity to advance both dialogue and action around racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The Police Data Initiative, launched in May 2016, is a first step to begin collecting and analysing policing data, but Ramsey believes it will take political will from the White House to help shape it into a reliable system.