Thursday, October 09, 2014

speaking of contact-tracing: how is it that the government can read your emails but not count overseer-inflicted casualties?


salon |  The shooting of teenager Michael Brown has focused the nation (again) on the dangers faced by young, unarmed black men walking the streets of America. The sight of paramilitary police with guns pointed at peaceful protesters in a suburban town in the Midwest also got our attention. And as we wait for the legal system to determine if officer Darren Wilson will be held liable for the shooting, new questions are rising to the surface about the issue of officer-involved shootings in general. How often does this happen? How are these issues normally handled by prosecutors and the courts? And surprisingly, there is almost no way of knowing how often American citizens are killed at the hands of the authorities.

Most reporting in the last couple of weeks has cited the figure of 400 people killed in incidents of “justifiable homicide” by police officers each year since 2008.  This number comes from estimates done by the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to this article by Reuben Fischer-Baum at Five Thirty Eight, that number is highly debatable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that only “justifiable” homicides are counted, which obviously means any that are deemed unjustified are not. It’s clear that the current government methods for reporting these deaths are unreliable.

Others have tried to compile these statistics themselves through media reports. Kyle Wagner at Deadspin recently announced a crowdsourcing project to collect the information for a comprehensive database. D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, has been trying to gather the data for years and wrote a very interesting, and disturbing, article for Gawker discussing the difficulties he’s had getting cooperation from the authorities:

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.

It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.

It does seem more than a bit odd that the government has the capacity to collect all emails and texts that pass through the United States but is unable to compile a list of citizens who died in interactions with police agencies, doesn’t it?