Across the commonwealth, shootings committed by police officers are being misreported or unreported.
If shootings are underreported or misdescribed, then the statistics are useless for determining the frequency of such dangerous incidents or accurately tracking which departments might have itchy trigger fingers.
State law requires that shootings by police be reported to the Virginia State Police if they result in death or serious injury.
But a recent review by the Lynchburg News & Advance shows that since the law has been in effect, police have failed to report such shootings to the central data base nearly 30% of the time.
“It’s impossible without accurate reporting for the public to know the extent of this issue,” Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications at the ACLU of Virginia, told the newspaper.
“It almost calls into question the validity and accuracy of the entire report,” he added. “… [I]t makes you wonder what else is wrong.”
State police acknowledged the problem, but said it’s improving. During the six months the law was in effect in 2016, police failed to report officer-involved shootings 60% of the time. In 2017, that fell to 30%; and in 2018, to 19%.
State police officials say some of the problem some is due to simple clerical errors; some is due to the difficulty of ramping up a new data-collection program; some is because local police are not being adequately trained in complying with the new law.
We’re not exactly reassured by the fact that police have such difficulty learning to obey a new law. What other laws might they be misapplying due to undertraining?
Furthermore, if police can’t quickly learn and follow a new law, what hope do we civilians have in learning and obeying new laws?
But those concerns are only part of the problem.
The key issue is whether the law is doing its intended job in requiring compilation of police shooting statistics so that conclusions can be drawn about such shootings. Are there too many police shootings? Are the shootings justified? Do patterns emerge suggesting that some departments have failed to properly educate and monitor their officers in the use of firearms?
Presumably, conclusions can be used to improve public policy — but only if the statistics on which they are based are accurate and comprehensive.
The first step toward answering some of these questions is to ensure that departments are fully and accurately reporting shootings to the state police. If the reasons for lack of compliance are as simple as state police suggest, then this problem will solve itself as departments become more familiar with the requirement. (Remember, lack of compliance is declining — although last year’s 19% failure rate is still too high.)
However, some critics suggest that even if the law achieves 100% compliance, that’s not enough to provide truly useful data.
One obvious deficiency is the fact that although departments are supposed to report shootings in which a victim was seriously injured, no information is provided as to what constitutes “serious.” Police departments are at liberty to set their own definition.
Nor does the law say how much detail should be provided about a shooting.
This lack of specificity makes the data almost useless for the purpose of improving police training or practices.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, is among those believing that more details should be required. Among those details: the age, gender and race of those involved; the time and location of each incident, and information about what might have precipitated the shooting.
“For it to be worthwhile, we need the kind of information that will feed us back trends, so that we can adapt training accordingly,” she said.
The General Assembly was on the right track when it mandated that police submit data whenever their officers were involved in a serious shooting.
But the law has been on the books long enough now for us to begin to identify its shortcomings.
These are problems the General Assembly can fix at its next session. The legislature at least should establish a uniform definition of “serious injury” in a shooting, if not require that all shootings be reported. It also should require that departments provide additional data so that the statistics can be used to track trends and patterns.
The sooner these changes are made, the better. Police departments already have had a hard enough time learning to apply the existing law. The faster the new requirements can be implemented, the quicker we can expect to have useful results in hand.