After three Arkansas police officers were caught on video senselessly beating a suspect last weekend, the country found itself having a conversation about police violence yet again. It’s a problem that manifests with such disheartening frequency that it sometimes feels like it’s a part of everyday life in America. And in some communities — particularly poor, Black, and brown — it actually is.
But while it’s abundantly clear that police brutality is a pervasive problem, there is still a lot that remains unknown about just how pervasive it actually is. And that’s because up until recently the federal government did not collect comprehensive data on use of force. In fact, the best databases on police violence that Americans have access to come from watchdogs and the press and, even then, there’s a catch: they’re focused on deadly use of force and do not include incidents of nonfatal police violence.
There are many reasons for this giant hole in the available data on police brutality. For one, there are some 18,000 police departments scattered across the country, and there is not a uniform definition of “use of force” among them. More than that, their reporting practices vary wildly, and the federal government does not require state and local agencies to collect, let alone submit, statistics on violent officer misconduct.
That has to change. While it’s true that the data that already exist paint a clear and alarming picture of law enforcement officers routinely abusing their power, there is still value in having a more complete understanding of the depth of the problem. It would, for example, bolster police accountability. The more the public knows about police overreach in their communities, the more pressure law enforcement agencies would feel to hold their own officers accountable for misconduct. And collecting more comprehensive data means that experts can more reliably measure the effectiveness of police reform laws, and better understand what works at reducing police violence and what doesn’t really make a dent.
For too long, the federal government has been negligent in getting this data and making it available to the public. Even incidents of deadly use of force have been hard to compile at the federal level. In 2000, for example, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which required states to report every death that occurred while someone was being arrested or held in custody. But, as outlined in a report from the advocacy group People For the American Way, Congress failed to provide the funding necessary to enforce the law, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which was tasked with collecting the data, eventually suspended the program.
There has, however, been some progress in recent years. In 2015, the FBI created the National Use of Force Data Collection program, which officially launched in 2019. It’s a database from agencies across the country that includes nonfatal use of force. But even this has a problem: Participation is voluntary and nearly 40 percent of law enforcement agencies have chosen not to participate, including the departments where the three Arkansas officers worked. The FBI is waiting to release additional data from the program until it reaches 80 percent of the officer population. But there’s no reason for the FBI to withhold detailed information until arbitrary thresholds are crossed. Any data they have is better than what has been available in years past, so they ought to release a report on an annual basis.
For his part, President Biden signed an executive order in May that, among other things, improved data collection by requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to submit use-of-force data to the FBI and issuing guidelines on best practices for state and local agencies. But that still leaves something to be desired. Until all police departments — not just federal ones — are required to submit their data for public consumption, then far too many will continue to simply opt out of any voluntary data-collection program. The federal government could compel state and local agencies to contribute to the FBI’s database by tying some federal funds to the condition that they do so.
The doomed police reform effort in Congress last year would have addressed the issue of data collection head on. But since that bill fell through the cracks, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have lost interest in addressing police brutality altogether. And so for now, they’re allowing the problem to fester — in many places unreported until a bystander records an incident on their phone and uploads it on social media for the world to see.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.