Congressman Elijah Cummings
As a practicing attorney for two decades, I learned that clear factual evidence was my most powerful ally in achieving justice.
It does not surprise me, therefore, that greater access to the facts in the death of Staten Island’s Eric Garner led towider public disagreement with the grand jury’s failure to indict than had been the case with a similar failure in Ferguson, Missouri.
According to a December Pew Research / USA Today poll, this difference was especially pronounced among polling respondents who were white.
By a wide margin (64% to 23%), whites said that the grand jury made the right decision in Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. However, just 28% of whites said that the grand jury made the right decision in not charging a police officer in Eric Garner’s death — nearly one-half (47%) saying that the grand jury made the wrong decision.
This insight about the power of the truth in achieving justice may not be much solace to either Michael Brown or Eric Garner’s loved ones. Nevertheless, it is critically important in advancing our movement for national policing reform.
Most deaths in police-involved shootings occur in relative obscurity, even within the local communities where they take place. This is one of the realities that we are working to change.
On January 26, I joined Congressman John J. Conyers, Jr., Congressman Bennie G. Thompson and 53 other congressional members in offering to work with President Obama to achieve full funding of the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The NVDRS provides states and communities with funding to document the causes of violent deaths, including those resulting from “legal intervention” by law enforcement authorities. It also tracks the race of victims, the causes of injuries and the relationship of victims to their suspected killers.
In our letter to the President, we expressed our concern that current NVDRS data from the 17 states that are now reporting shows that African-Americans were killed at a rate three times higher than their white peers during “legal intervention” by those with legal authority to use deadly force. “Hispanic-Americans” also were disproportionately more likely to die as a result of being injured by law enforcement officers.
“These disparities are alarming and unacceptable for a country that holds ‘equal justice under law’ as a core ideal,” we wrote. “The lack of comprehensive federal data regarding the number of Americans killed during police encounters also presents a significant challenge for elected officials and citizens interested in providing better training and resources for law enforcement officers.”
Our request for full funding would enable NVDRS to increase its collection and reporting of data on violent police encounters to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is information that the public – and the Congress – want and need.
In the current Congress, however, full funding for NVDRS may be difficult to achieve. Yet, we remain hopeful — in part because our movement for greater transparency in police-involved deaths has gained an important ally.
On February 12, James B. Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gave an important and widely-reported speech at Georgetown University expressing some “hard truths about law enforcement and race.” The full text is available at http://www.fbi.gov.news/speeches/ .
Director Comey is a Republican, white and “pro-law-enforcement” to his core. He also is a fierce and ethical seeker of the truth, wherever his search for the truth may lead.
His candor that too much of law enforcement’s history within communities of color has not been what it should be — and that, even today, racial bias is too often present in the actions of the police — has received most of the commentary, as, no doubt, it should.
Yet, equally important, were his remarks about the compelling need for greater transparency and reporting in policing, especially with respect to police-involved shootings.
“Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer,” Director Comey recalled, “I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information.”
“They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault,” he continued. “Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”
James Comey’s acknowledgment may be somewhat surprising to those of us who were raised to believe that the FBI, our nation’s foremost law enforcement agency, is all-seeing and all-knowing.
Yet, I, for one, deeply appreciated the Director’s candor — and his emphasis on the importance of more comprehensive disclosure by our police.
“How can we address concerns about “use of force,” Director Comey asked at Georgetown University, “how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents?”
At least part of the answer to his questions is clear.
A fully-funded and operational National Violent Death Reporting System would provide much of the information about police-involved shootings that the FBI, the Congress and all of us need.
Only through full disclosure of the truth can we be fair to both our citizenry and our police.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.