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Hundreds Of Homicides By Police Go Uncounted In FBI Statistics

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City - after several incidents of police killings around the country, many Americans are scrutinizing how police use deadly force. But this debate over the use of force is happening without solid data on how often these killings happen. The FBI does keep a tally of justifiable homicides by police departments around the country. But when The Wall Street Journal asked local agencies for their stats, they found that many police killings simply go uncounted by the FBI. Here's reporter Rob Barry.

ROB BARRY: We chose the top 110 largest departments by full-time sworn officers and asked them to provide us with the number of people who'd been killed by their officers each year for about a six-year period.

RATH: And so when you compared those numbers from those departments with the FBI's numbers, what did you find?

BARRY: We wound up finding about 550 incidents that had occurred in this time span, but had never been reported or at least weren't currently reflected in the FBI's figures. And there were a number of reasons for that. Some of it was because agencies didn't report them, and that's very normal. This isn't a required thing. Roughly a third of the agencies we looked at really weren't participating in it for one reason or another.

This stuff is included in these FBI crime reports. And the information that we're looking at actually is about all homicides. But some of those homicides are coded in this information as justifiable homicides by law enforcement. And we found some agencies, like in Fairfax County, Virginia, for instance, where they seem to have been reporting all these homicides, but they never seem to have any justifiable homicides by law enforcement. They said that it was because the crime reporting didn't cover justifiable homicide by law enforcement, which aren't crimes. So they had his interpretation that it just wasn't right to include cases involving, you know, legal interventions - deaths that are not illegal - to put the report called a crime report.

So there was that, and then a bunch of other much larger issues. For instance, some of the largest states in the country - New York, Florida, most of Illinois - their information does not wind up in the FBI's records. And that's for a variety of reasons. It's not really the agency's problems. It's the states that are responsible for getting that stuff 'cause the way these records work is they're reported from every agency up to a state-level agency, for the most part. And the state passes them on to the FBI. What we found is in Florida, New York and Illinois, that wasn't happening.

RATH: Do you have a sense, though, of, even after your reporting, how much we still don't know about these kinds of killings?

BARRY: No. And that's something that, you know, I think we tried to talk about in the story - is that there's really just no way to know what we don't know. Just for perspective, over the entire period to time we looked at, something on the order of 750 police departments had reported something to the FBI about these incidents. But there's about 18,000 police departments across the country. We talked 110 of them, and we found a bunch of stuff was missing. When you get to the smaller agencies, there's just no way to know.

RATH: Rob, imagine for a moment that you're not a reporter, but an editor. What advice would you give to your reporters when it comes to using FBI statistics?

BARRY: (Laughter) Well, use discretion, I think. We really need to talk to experts about this - people who work with this stuff for a living. You know, there are folks in government who study this stuff, publish reports on it. And they'll be the first to tell reporters, hey, you know, be really careful what you say about this because it's just not right. But I think what it comes down to is a question of why. You know, why isn't it right? What can we do to make it better? Where is the breakdown happening?

RATH: That's Rob Barry. He's a reporter The Wall Street Journal, and he joined us from New York. Rob, thank you.

BARRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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