Numbers game

Congress re-authorized an ineffective law to track officer-involved homicides

This is the sixth installment of the Reno News & Review's Fatal Encounters series.

I write in the third person when I want news articles to sound credible. This year, I’ve written the first five installments in the Fatal Encouters series—our look at officer-involved homicides—in the third person. It’s the way “respectable” straight journalists write in the national media. It’s the way journalism academics teach students to write. (I once had a master’s level instructor tell me that first-person narratives are forbidden in the AP Stylebook.) When we read or hear the third person voice, our brains are conditioned to react in a certain way.

One problem with third-person reporting is, I don’t write for a national audience, and I don’t much care whether people outside the McCarran Loop find me credible. I’ve been an alternative journalist at this paper for more than 20 years, and people around here either think I have integrity or they don’t.

Another problem is that the bureaucrats we journalists cover know how to manipulate media outlets who use this style of reporting. They just say nothing or they make an incredible assertion, so the journalist either doesn’t use the quote, types it like a stenographer, or finds a contradicting voice. The fact is the last option is the best, but journalists work on deadline. In many news outlets, not getting a second side on the record—even if they’re the reticent ones—is enough to quell an article.

The third person style is also supposed to prevent the appearance of bias, having the reporter jump in and call baloney in his or her own voice on the ludicrous statements bureaucrats and politicians make as fact. I think maybe this is a holdover from the days when reporters didn’t get bylines in newspapers, so everything was supposed to be attributed to the paper.

But for all those reasons, I’m calling baloney.


When 2014 began, it was not widely known that our government does not keep adequate statistics on the people killed by law enforcement. In fact, when our series Fatal Encounters began in February, the first thing other journalists said when we reported that the government didn’t track this information was, “bull.” The lack of data is now widely known, not solely because of our efforts, but because the national media picked it up, mainly in light of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. For example, Lynn Walsh of Scripps Media did this story on Aug. 14: and USA Today did this one on Aug. 15: Even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart weighed in:

By the time folks at the Washington Post or CNN or Al Jazeera had run with the story, it was well-known and well-documented that the Department of Justice was not comprehensively collecting this data. In fact, part of the anger that was fueling the protests across the country was that our government wasn’t concerned enough about the people it kills to determine who they are and why it kills them. It’s difficult for me to imagine a greater arrogance of authoritarian power. There were urgent calls for action by Congress. For example, a petition “We Demand National Change to Protect Citizens and Communities from Police Violence and Misconduct,” which included the demand, “Ensure transparency, accountability, and safety of our communities, by requiring front-facing cameras on police departments with records of racial disparity in stops, arrest, killings, and excessive force complaints,” garnered more than a quarter-million signatures.

And that’s when it happened, on Dec. 10, 2014—the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 passed the Senate with unanimous consent without amendment. More than a year after the House of Representatives passed this legislation; President Barack Obama signed it on Dec. 18.

Crisis averted! Americans could go home since Uncle Sam had their backs. Congress passed a law requiring the attorney general to collect this information, just as attorneys general had collected it from 2000 through 2006. In the face of unrest, Congress had acted decisively.

Except, they hadn’t. But you wouldn’t know that from the news media: “Congress decides to get serious about tracking police shootings” (Washington Post, Dec. 11); “A full accounting of people killed by police, at last” (Sacramento Bee, Dec. 21); and “Congress Just Passed a Bill Addressing Police Killings While No One Was Looking” (News.Mic, Dec. 13).

And just as you’d expect, those who imagined themselves benefiting from the lack of data being collected by the government, immediately questioned the utility of private efforts to gather and publish the data.

For example, in a Dec. 20 USA Today article, which was about an interactive map the civil rights organization Color of Change had created with data, Bill Johnson, executive director of National Association of Police Organizations, said, “I think [] is far behind what actually is happening,” Johnson said. “It’s already literally on the books.”

Cooked books

And Johnson is exactly right: It is on the books. The law was re-authorized as it was written and enforced in 2000-2006. Skeptical reporters who weren’t just taking dictation might suspect that six years of documented track record could offer a clue as to just how effective that law might be. In fact, you’d think they’d already know since, by and large, their employers had published stories on the lack of data on officer-involved homicides that included the entire period the DCRA was in effect.

No such luck.

Not to be cynical, but since the riot problem is solved, and now that the protesters, the fire trucks, the paddy wagons and the MRAPs have mostly gone home, it seems possible that the media will move on to corporate hacking scandals, and the issue of the lack of officer-involved violence data will be forgotten until the grand jury refuses to indict in the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland. Or whatever the next inexplicable decision is.

During the years the law was in effect, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics dataset, only 35 states reported their information every year. Arkansas, District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin reported sporadically. Georgia, Maryland, Montana and Wyoming never reported. No state data was published during the first three years of authorization.

All that information is on the Bureau of Justice Statistics site at

Peculiarly, the FBI’s published data on arrest-related deaths runs from 2003-2009, so at least when they were collecting spotty data, they continued to collect it in years that they weren’t required to by law. That begs the question, since they could gather the data without Congressional mandate, why would they stop?

That answer, too, is obvious when a reporter bothers to do a web search to check on what his sources tell him. The DCRP is still active, with its latest data from 2012. Same as it ever was, it “collects inmate death records from each of the nation’s 50 state prison systems and approximately 2,800 local jail jurisdictions. In addition, this program collects records of all deaths occurring during the process of arrest. Data are collected directly from state and local law enforcement agencies.”

And, of course, its utility can be measured by the reports analyzing the data it collected during its previous six years. Despite the congressional requirement, in six years, there was not one, not a single report issued on how to reduce deaths related to arrests.

But maybe, when you look at the appropriations, it makes sense. In the 2008 bill, Congress asked for $500,000 In the 2013 bill, they asked for nothing. However, in the bill’s notes, the judiciary committee said it expected no cost.

Law and disorder

So, let’s compare the laws: Here’s the 2000 law: That law amended the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 by adding the following new paragraph at the end:

“(2) such State has provided assurances that it will follow guidelines established by the Attorney General in reporting, on a quarterly basis, information regarding the death of any person who is in the process of arrest, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, State prison, or other local or State correctional facility (including any juvenile facility) that, at a minimum, includes—

“(A) the name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased;

“(B) the date, time, and location of death; and

“(C) a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death.”

But take a look at the new law: There’s not much more to it.

There’s an in-depth analysis from the Judiciary Committee: that includes this explanation in the Congressional Budget Office enclosure: “CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 1447 would have no significant cost to the Federal Government. Enacting the bill would not affect direct spending or revenues; therefore, pay-as-you-go procedures do not apply.”

So, what does this all mean? Congress re-enacted a law that seemed to make no appreciative difference in the reporting of statistics of officer-involved homicides during the time it was in effect. Indeed, the Justice Department says it never stopped collecting the data, and all a reporter has to do is look at it to determine its spottiness.

Congress did not appropriate funds for the program; the “stick” to enforce compliance is a threat to take money away—maybe: “a State that fails to comply … shall, at the discretion of the Attorney General, be subject to not more than a 10 percent reduction of the funds that would otherwise be allocated for that fiscal year to the State under subpart 1 of part E of title I of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.”

It’s impossible to say for certain what effect the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 will have on the reporting of officer-involved homicides, and maybe this first-person narrative will only undermine its own ability to inspire larger media outlets to keep an eye on whether the law is enforced and whether this country gets the accurate information it desperately needs.

But I’m calling baloney.