For generations, Black families have passed down cautionary tales about harmful encounters with police — stories of racial profiling, planted evidence and excessive force that goes unchecked. The warnings are largely rooted in the anecdotes and life experience of elders. But solid data on American law enforcement’s racial biases has remained elusive.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation began collecting use-of-force data from law enforcement agencies in 2019 and made efforts to improve data collection last year by switching its reporting software. As a result, the FBI was able to compile a database of police killings that includes the race of victims. 

But only 6,775 law enforcement agencies provided information to the federal database about their use of force against civilians during the first three months of this year — a fraction of the more than 18,500 agencies that make up the nation’s law enforcement structure.

It’s an ongoing frustration for advocates and lawmakers who support police reform and holding law enforcement accountable for racial inequities and brutality. 

The limited data that is available often has revealed disparities that back up reforms in law enforcement practices. For instance, analyses by news organizations have shown that no-knock warrants — which allow law enforcement to enter residences without knocking or announcing themselves — have been used more frequently in communities of color and resulted in the death of a disproportionate number of Black and Latino people.

The police raid that led to Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020 involved a no-knock warrant. The City Council later banned such warrants, and as part of the settlement negotiations in her family’s wrongful death lawsuit, the city agreed to several police reform efforts that included a requirement for commanders to review search warrants before seeking a judge’s approval. 

The Justice Department announced indictments on Aug. 4 against four current and former officers for federal civil rights violations, conspiring to cover up the creation of a false affidavit to obtain a search warrant for Taylor’s home, and other charges. 

Data is critical for reform efforts, but withholding it allows room for plausible deniability that discrimination in policing exists, said Joshua Byrd, program chair and criminal justice professor at American InterContinental University.

The government wants to “have a level of control in society. … So it’s not going to be to their advantage to sort of put out data that might have some sort of negative connotations, or ideas about racism, sexism, or any other -ism,” said Byrd, who also serves as committee chair for the Anti-Gun Violence Committee of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. “One smart way to keep control is to not provide the right data.”

Recent legislative efforts to improve tracking of police violence have died. Some independent organizations have taken up the effort, relying on news accounts and police reports to compile their own databases of fatal encounters with law enforcement. 

The Washington Post has been logging fatal shootings since 2015, and found that Black Americans are killed by police at twice the rate of white Americans. A separate database, Mapping Police Violence, went a step further, seeking to compile all deadly police encounters. The project by Campaign Zero, a police reform activist group, determined that Black people were nearly three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than white Americans. 

The FBI database goes beyond fatal incidents to encompass a broader array of police violence, including tasers and physical restraint, even when the encounters don’t turn deadly. But still, the federal data is often incomplete and messy.

“It is extremely important for data to be as transparent and accessible as possible, and that means that it has to be collected in a way that will be able to be analyzed, to understand trends, and whether there are inequities with respect to how police engage individuals who are accused of certain types of incidents,” said Sakira Cook, the co-interim vice president of campaigns for Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization.

A 2021 FBI report looked at a subset of extreme cases — active shootings — and analyzed how often they ended in the arrest, suicide, or killing of the suspect. But the report excluded certain categories of common gun violence, such as domestic and gang-related incidents. It also did not report the race or ethnicity of the suspects. 

In the absence of racial data in the report, Capital B used public records, news reports, and mugshots to identify the races of 53 of the 61 suspects in the FBI’s active shooter report. Among those identified, Black suspects were nearly three times as likely to be killed by police as white suspects, though white suspects were significantly more likely to die by suicide during an active shooting incident.

But even this federal data is questionable. Capital B found several active shooting incidents that occurred in 2021 but weren’t included in the FBI’s report. And some of the 61 incidents it included didn’t fit the report’s definition of an active shooter: “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill in a populated area.” For instance, one incident included in the report was about a 12-year-old girl who was detained by a teacher until police arrived after she allegedly shot three people at school. Capital B asked the FBI why that case was characterized as an active shooting incident, but the agency declined to respond. 

Why disparities linger

Though there’s limited data on racial disparities in law enforcement’s use of force, there is some understanding of what contributes to the disparities. Byrd, a former deputy sheriff for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, said officers are given a wide range of discretion when it comes to using force. If they feel that their life — or another person’s life — is in danger, use of deadly force is legally viewed as justified.

As a result, Byrd said, police officers are shooting and killing individuals — especially Black people — “because of how they feel” instead of the reality of the threat.

Because of racial stereotypes and media portrayals of Black people as violent, police “already feel like they’re threatened, they already feel like they are dangerous,” Byrd said, “and now they are acting on what they call their subconscious or implicit bias.”

Implicit bias training sessions are offered to law enforcement officers, including prosecutors, across the country. Byrd, who has conducted this training, says law enforcement officers often don’t want to acknowledge the idea of having an implicit bias against Black people that might prompt them to shoot first and ask questions later.

A related dynamic could play a role in active shooter situations, as well. Data in the FBI report suggests that white shooters more frequently commit suicide, while Black shooters are more often killed by police — a possible disparity that could be influenced by cultural differences, said Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist and suicidologist. 

Most people, at least most Black folks in the U.S., know that interactions with the police could be lethal,” Walker said, which could lead to desperate attempts of the theory of “suicide by cop” as an alternative to taking one’s own life.

“Culture is how you make sense of things, and if how you make sense of things is, ‘I can’t take my own life, but I am a struggling individual who sees no hope for the future,’ it would be more acceptable for me to do this act of violence and for someone else to end my life than for me to do that,” Walker said.

But because of the lack of data and psychological autopsies conducted, particularly on Black people, Walker cautioned that she can’t definitively conclude whether “suicide by cop” explains the potential racial disparities in active shooter cases.

The push for change

For years, civil rights advocates have urged improvements in public reporting of demographics of civilians who encounter police officers, whether they are subject to an investigation or not, saying that it’s important to expose any unjust patterns and practices within a department.

Color of Change is among the organizations that have championed the call for mandatory collection of law enforcement data.

The number one thing is to press the FBI to collect data publicly, analyze the data on an annual basis and to make recommendations not only to the agency, but to Congress about how to address some of the disparities that exist in what the data tells us,” Cook said. “There’s a clear disparity with respect to who didn’t get taken into custody.”

In 2020, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that included several police reforms and accountability measures, including a national database that would track police misconduct. The bill would have required law enforcement agencies to provide a demographic breakdown to the attorney general of incidents in which use-of-force and other police practices, such as traffic-violation stops, occurred. That information would have gone into a national police misconduct database that would be shared with the public on a DOJ-hosted website.

The bill collapsed last fall when Democratic and Republican senators couldn’t reach an agreement on some elements of the legislation. 

Though congressional efforts to address the data have died, activists have continued the fight.

“It is critically important that the data exists, the data is public, in order for us to put forth solutions and structural changes that will improve the ways in which Black people, specifically, experience the criminal legal system in this country,” Cook said, “because we know it’s inequitable. We know it is racist.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the title for Joshua Byrd. He is program chair and criminal justice professor at American InterContinental University.

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega