Some bills that pass through Congress are shocking not because of their content, but because they are not already on the books. Such is the case with legislation quietly reauthorized this week on Capitol Hill in the midst of mass protests against police violence.
The Death in Custody Act — it originally went into effect in 2000 but was allowed to expire in 2006 — demands something that should have always been a basic requirement for this country's richly armed and dangerous law enforcement: To count and report how many people are killed in custody.
Once President Barack Obama signs the act into law, each state will be forced to hand over fatality figures to the attorney general; the Department of Justice will be able to withhold funding to states that refuse to comply. The reports must include those who die while detained, under arrest, or incarcerated; other deaths — those of people shot dead on the street, for instance — are not demanded. And while this legislation marks a small step to keep some check on police killings and impunity, its passing in 2014 is a troubling reflection that police violence has not even been addressed, let alone challenged in recent years.
The failure of a Ferguson grand jury to bring officer Darren Wilson to trial, followed soon after by the non-indictment decision for Eric Garner's killer, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, exemplified a justice system with little interest in ending police brutality, especially against black life. Statistics bare out the same problem; police departments currently are not required to report their use of force statistics. National databases on police violence are thus a spotty affair, with some local departments offering no account of their behavior.
Such has been the misplaced trust in police to police themselves, and such has been the political disregard for the issue, that not even rudimentary accounts of police killings have been required. For a government hellbent on unbounded hoarding of data pertaining to its civilians, the dearth of information officially collected on cops is telling. Only in response to huge and disruptive protests have we seen a political will emerge to even talk about the police as a violent force. In a long overdue riposte to the bad-apple cop narrative, Representative John Conyers of Michigan nodded to the problem as systematic. "It's not isolated incidents by rogue police," he said.
The reauthorization of the Death in Custody Act will not solve the police problem plaguing this country. Police departments will still have purview over official accounts of shootings. The statistics that will be fed to the attorney general will come from police departments adept in stretching truth beyond recognition. Police officers are almost never prosecuted for perjury, yet the term "testilying" was specifically coined for when police take the stand. The statistics available from the FBI on police killing of felony suspects, in a profound act of question begging, list only "justifiable homicides." Even so, the sheer number of dead, scantly reported as it currently is, tells a story of unacceptable, racially skewed violence that cannot be denied. Federal statistics on police killings already indicate that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than their white counterparts.
Incomplete data sets tell us enough to know that this framework of law enforcement must not go on. We don't need more stats to justify the struggle against police violence today, but the absence of official data speaks to the unwillingness of those in power to address head-on the grim realities of American policing. Congress deserves no hearty pats on the back here — popular rage, manifested daily, over police treatment of young black life brought this urgent problem to the fore.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard