Police departments will be required to give the US justice department full details of deadly incidents involving their officers each quarter, under a new government system for counting killings by police that was influenced by the Guardian.
Announcing a new program for documenting all “arrest-related deaths”, federal officials said they would actively work to confirm fatal cases seen in media reports and other open sources rather than wait for departments to report them voluntarily.
The methodology of the new system, which aims to replace a discredited count by the FBI, mirrors that of The Counted, an ongoing Guardian effort to document every death caused by law enforcement officers in 2015 and 2016.
Writing in the Federal Register, Department of Justice officials said their new program should increase transparency around the use of force by police and improve accountability for the actions of individual officers.
“Accurate and comprehensive accounting of deaths that occur during the process of arrest is critical for law enforcement agencies to demonstrate responsiveness to the citizens and communities they serve,” their notice said.
The federal government has kept no comprehensive record of killings by police officers, even as a series of controversial deaths set off unrest in cities across the country over the past two years. An annual voluntary count by the FBI of fatal shootings by officers has recorded only about half the true number.
The new system is being overseen by the department’s bureau of justice statistics (BJS). It would, like the Guardian’s, document deaths caused by physical force, Taser shocks and some vehicle crashes caused by law enforcement in addition to fatal shootings by officers. A Washington Post tally counts fatal shootings by police.
In their Federal Register article, officials cited their authority under the death in custody reporting act – a law that states local departments must report all deaths in custody to the justice department or lose 10% of their federal funding. The law has been largely ignored since being reauthorized in December 2014.
The BJS carried out a trial of its new system that monitored deaths between 1 June and 31 August last year. Officials working on the pilot program cited The Counted as an influence on the initiative and a source for its information.
Officials estimate that this year there will be about 2,100 arrest-related deaths across the US involving 1,066 different police departments. The BJS criteria includes a wide range of deaths including suicides and natural causes. Last year the Guardian counted 1,146 deaths caused by police in narrower terms.
Under the new government program, all 19,450 American law enforcement agencies will be sent a form by the BJS that requires information on all the department’s arrest-related deaths in the past quarter of the year.
Deaths that were already noticed in media reports will be listed by the BJS for confirmation or correction by the local departments. Space will be included for the local department to list additional deaths that were not previously noticed. Departments that have seen no arrest-related deaths that quarter will be asked to return “an affirmative zero” saying so.
A second form seeking extensive information about the circumstances of each death will be sent to the local department responsible. It will require local officials to detail similar data to that logged by The Counted, such as demographic information on every person killed, how the deadly encounter began and whether the person was armed.
Other forms will be sent to the 685 medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices asking them to also confirm details of deaths that have been noticed in public sources. They, too, will be asked to return forms with details of any other deaths that went unnoticed.
The BJS ran a previous arrest-related deaths count that was shuttered in April 2014, four months before the issue of killings by police became a national controversy following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Officials acknowledged in a review of the previous program that its census-style method led to an under-documenting of deaths. They argue that their new “hybrid approach” – proactively seeking out fatal cases using open sources such as news reports, while also asking police to alert them to unnoticed cases – will lead to more comprehensive data.
There will also be a two-month consultation period inviting comments on how it might work, particularly from law enforcement agencies and medical examiners who would be affected.
The FBI said at the end of last year that it planned to overhaul its discredited system for counting shootings by officers to include other uses of force and non-deadly incidents. The FBI program, however, is expected to remain voluntary.
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