Advocates of a mandatory national database on police shootings say it’s just a matter of collecting data to solve the “epidemic problem” of police violence in our nation. But it’s not so simple. A national database will inevitably lead to sweeping national regulations that will make local departments beholden to the feds.
In other words, it’s one step closer to a federal takeover of local policing. A national database will help ever-so-trustworthy and “competent” experts at the national level use ginned-up civil-rights crises and manipulated data, which don’t take into account particular, unique situations on the ground, to build uniform standards they’ll impose from the top down.
Two Democratic senators have proposed a bill that will require states to report to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) all shootings involving a police officer or any other use of force that results in death. Currently, local police departments are not required to report these data to the feds, so the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t have a comprehensive database on what’s going on in the more than 18,000 police agencies across the nation. Senators Barbara Boxer and Cory Booker want to end that by creating a national database on every shooting—fatal or nonfatal—including age, gender, race, and whether the person was armed.
“Too many members of the public and police officers are being killed, and we don’t have reliable statistics to track these tragic incidents,” Boxer said. “This bill will ensure that we know the full extent of the problem so we can save lives on all sides.”
How Could Collecting Data Hurt Anyone?
The “we” Boxer is referring to, of course, is the federal government. It’s not enough that local departments and states carry out their own investigations when shootings happen; according to Boxer and activists who are compiling their own databases, the federal government needs the information so they can have more oversight of local authorities and bring about reform.
It sounds quite reasonable to gather data—what’s the harm in collecting information?—but any time the federal government does so, we need to pause and ask, “How will they interpret the data, and what are they going to do with it?” The obvious answer is to bring about one-size-fits-all national reforms, something I recently discussed with supporters of the bill on KCRW’s “To the Point.”
Jim Bueermann, former chief of the police department in Redlands, California, and president of the Police Foundation, said he is for a national database because shootings are grossly under-reported, and it will promote accountability and transparency of policing in the United States.
Jon Swaine of The Guardian has been working to build an independent database with “The Counted” and says they’ve found that the number of minorities, particularly blacks, killed by police is much higher than reported.
Local Control Means Better Accountability
While Bueermann and reporters at The Guardian are well-intentioned in wanting to protect innocent lives by holding police accountable, top-down reforms aren’t the way to do it. Local policing is a matter for the states, and the federal government needs to stay out of it unless federal laws have been violated. If activists want reform, they need to go about the difficult task of doing it on the state level instead of looking to the feds to impose their will on local authorities.
We have a very diverse nation, and police departments are local because we want officers to be invested in the community, to know the people they are policing. Every situation is different, and every department is unique, with varied needs and budgets. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, doesn’t need or want the same regulations or “best practices” that Chicago has. Certainly, Dade County in Florida is very different from Montgomery County in Maryland—a county that is well-known for its transparency and has a lot of money to make that happen effectively.
The call for national reform, however, is based on a false meme that local police can’t be trusted, that they’re out of control, and white cops are killing blacks every chance they get. This simply isn’t true—53 percent of Americans are very confident in cops, while only 16 percent have little or no confidence in them. Most cops are faithful at doing their job, and maligning them only encourages civil unrest, which leads to federal intrusion.
When a police shooting happens, local authorities investigate the incident. The state gets involved if the department doesn’t do its job. Detectives, state and district attorneys, forensic specialists—people on the ground and familiar with the local situation—are involved in holding the officer accountable and bringing charges. If reforms are needed, they need to happen at the state and local level. Even now, state legislatures and police departments are engaged in developing improved measures, including more training. Others have established “shooting teams” that can thoroughly investigate each incident.
Dispersing Power Protects Innocent People
It would violate our constitutional system for the federal government to impose intrusive and uniform alterations. This is the reality of federalism and our system of government with its separation of powers. We’re not like the United Kingdom, with a national police force. We’re 50 states with separate, autonomous powers. That’s a good thing, because diversity and dispersion of power protect Americans from abuse of centralized power.
While federalism is complex and doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions, it’s necessary to protect citizens from the federal government. The abuse of power by police officers that are spread over thousands of agencies can be a valid concern, but people need to be more concerned with abuse of power by a single centralized authority. Federalism protects us from abuse that will inevitably come when police power is in the hands of a few.
The protective shield of federalism, however, is being shredded in the name of civil rights as the federal government is getting more involved in local policing. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama called for national reforms to “end discriminatory policing,” although the shooting wasn’t a civil-rights violation, but a case of self-defense by the police officer.
Using Racism as a Pretense
Still, groups like “Color of Change” (among others) have answered Obama’s call for national reform by demanding mandatory reporting, stirring up racial conflicts, and calling for more investigations into presumed civil-rights violations. Color of Change has turned up in Texas to demand that the Justice Department investigate the police officer who has resigned over an incident at a pool party in McKinney. In highly charged language, the group is stoking the fires of racial tensions.
“There are few words to describe the inhumanity of McKinney law enforcement and Officer Casebolt’s brutal, unprofessional and discriminatory violence this past weekend,” said Color Of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson. “Our hearts go out to all the teens who experienced the terror and pain of unjust treatment at the hands of police, a trauma all too familiar to Black people across the country. . . . In America, pools have long been a place where the boundaries of racial segregation are enforced and what happened in McKinney is no different. The fact that white residents thought the teens, who had guest passes, ‘didn’t have permission to be there’ highlights the racism that kicked off the ensuing police violence. Dehumanizing racial stereotypes about Black girls and boys as ‘inherently wrong’ and ‘out of place’ in white spaces continues to rule the daily lives of Black people. McKinney, Texas, is no different.”
Color of Change hopes gathering data on local police and forming a national database will help stop such discrimination. If they can prove “from the numbers” that there is indeed police abuse on a widespread scale, they think it will justify increasingly involving the federal government in local policing.
The Problem With Data
The problem with data-collecting is that people can make massive amounts of data say anything if they don’t analyze them in context and consider all the associated complexities. William Sousa, a data collection specialist from the University of Nevada, made this point on the “To the Point” interview. Numbers could show that police shootings are on the rise, but if they are only happening in one area of the country, for example, then one can’t say the nation has a problem. People need to look at the numbers in context—which is very difficult to do.
Buerrmann said he has confidence that numbers can be beneficial because we’ll be using data specialists to interpret the information, not politicians. I wish that would be the case, but the fact is politicians will be the ones using the numbers to implement laws, and politicians have agendas. The agenda of the current administration and of the Democratic Party is clear: more federal control over local policing.
The Feds Already Oversee the Police
A point being lost in this debate is that local departments already have federal oversight. Since the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 after the Rodney King incident, the DOJ has been authorized to step in when there’s misconduct in local police departments. They write letters, initiate legal action, and put monitors in place. They did this to such an extent in Louisiana that it led to a federal takeover, in essence, of the police department.
If this system isn’t working (and some say it isn’t, because the policy was driven more by public sentiment than facts), then maybe that needs to be revisited instead of creating a new law which will lead to even more federal infringements of state autonomy.
More importantly, we need to put the “problem” of police shootings in perspective. Even the Washington Post, which has done a lot of reporting on the need for a national database, has stated that shooting deaths by police officers are rare—and most are justified. Only about 300 agencies have each reported one death this year—that’s out of thousands of agencies.
The fact is the vast majority of police departments in the country don’t have a problem. Local communities, by and large, are satisfied with their police departments. Already in 25 states, local departments are required by state law to report all shooting deaths to the state. When a police shooting happens, it’s reported and investigated. Officers are held accountable. That’s the norm. Why bring uniform and expensive federal reforms to all states when a small percentage has a problem?
Reform needs to be driven, not by national politicians and activist groups responding to a few incidents, but from within local departments and state legislatures. Just because there’s a problem in Cleveland or Ferguson doesn’t mean there’s a problem everywhere. Each state needs to take care of its own, and the federal government needs to respect their autonomy.