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The federal government is finally making police report every time they kill someone

A police officer at a shooting range.

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Two years after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the federal government is finally trying to get an accurate count of how many people are killed by police each year.

Jon Swaine reported for the Guardian that the new, proposed database “mirrors that of The Counted, an ongoing Guardian effort to document every death caused by law enforcement officers in 2015 and 2016.” It will supplant the current database kept by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which severely undercounts police killings.

A 2015 study by RTI International, which conducted the analysis for the BJS, found that from 2003 to 2009 and 2011, BJS’s Arrest-Related Deaths captured approximately 49 percent of people killed by police, while the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports captured 46 percent. Neither system picked up about 28 percent of law enforcement homicides, meaning more than one-quarter of police-caused deaths weren't tracked at all by the FBI and BJS’s databases.

BJS police shooting deaths RTI International

Federal officials wrote in the Federal Register that the new database will try to solve these problems: “The redesigned methodology includes a standardized mixed method, hybrid approach relying on open sources to identify eligible cases, followed by data requests from law enforcement and medical examiner/coroner offices for incident-specific information about the decedent and circumstances surrounding the event.”

The agency will enforce the collection of these statistics through existing federal law — which requires police agencies report all deaths under their custody or lose federal funding — and verify the data by itself. It will collect data ranging from the causes of death to demographic data about the victims.

The new database will first give annual data for 2016, then move to a quarterly basis afterward.

The development is a big deal for police reforms: Although police killings have been a big part of public and political debates since the Ferguson protests two years ago, the media, criminologists, activists, and even police have had to rely on third-party data to study and evaluate the number of police killings — and that data is very often missing crucial information, such as the victim’s race or the events that led to the killing.

So if the BJS database truly manages to be comprehensive, it will help Americans know the actual scope of police killings in the US.

Watch: Why recording the police is so important

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