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National data on shootings by police not collected

Looking for the number of burglaries last year in Devils Lake, N.D.? How about the increase in property crimes in Caribou, Maine? The answers (34 and 23 percent, respectively) are readily available from the FBI.

Want detailed information on how many people were shot by police in the United States last year?

That’s not so easy to find.

The nation’s leading law enforcement agency collects vast amounts of information on crime nationwide, but missing from this clearinghouse are statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life.

“We don’t have a mandate to do that,” said William Carr, an FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C. “It would take a request from Congress for us to collect that data.”

Congress, it seems, hasn’t asked.

The FBI, which has the power to conduct civil rights investigations related to any questionable use of deadly force by any law enforcement agency, has produced at least one report analyzing shootings over several years by its own agents.

In addition, the agency tracks the total annual number of “justifiable homicides,” acts it defines as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty,” but that only covers people shot while committing a serious crime and the data aren’t broken down by agency. In 2010, that number was 387, down from 414 the year before.

While the agency collects, reports, and analyzes murders and assaults where police are the victim, Carr said budgetary concerns would likely preclude collecting such detailed data on shootings by police.

Everyone from the Justice Department to the International Association of Police Chiefs to local and state police agencies have guidelines or policies on use of deadly force. But seldom do they try to quantify and analyze trends.

Some, the Los Angeles and San Diego police departments among them, do analyze shootings involving their own officers.

The Metropolitan Police Department created a statistical breakdown of officer-involved shootings between 2003 and 2008, listing data such as the age, gender, and race of officers and of shooting subjects. Following controversial incidents, the department did a similar breakdown for 2010. But neither report offers any analysis or draws any conclusions from the numbers.

The American Civil Liberties Union said police aren’t required to publicly report officer-involved shooting information to anyone, but recently a judge ordered the New York Police Department to release that information to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The NYPD fought disclosure, arguing it would violate the privacy of the officers and reveal investigative techniques, said Molly Kaplan, an American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman.

Alan Maimon is a Review-Journal special correspondent.

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