WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bill pending in Congress would compel states to report details of fatal police shootings, like three in Colorado this month, to a national database.
The bill would require states to identify the persons involved in the shootings, specifics of the incidents and whether police acted appropriately.
The bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, who said the government currently has no database that would allow the public to keep track of fatal police shootings. He said the database is a matter of government accountability.
Three fatal shootings by police have been reported in Colorado this month. The most recent such death was in Denver on March 19.
According to news reports, police were searching for a man wanted on an attempted-murder charge who earlier had escaped from Denver sheriff’s deputies at Denver Health medical center — a search that led them to an Aurora home. When an SUV was driven away from the home at high speed, police pursued it.
The driver was identified by authorities as 23-year-old Steven Nguyen, who was wanted on drug and firearms charges, but he was not the man police were trying to find. He was shot and killed by police, who reportedly fired because they thought he was looking for a gun inside the vehicle. Three officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
In a March 12 shooting, police killed a robbery suspect who barricaded himself in a Colorado Springs motel room with a female hostage, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported. After negotiations with a crisis negotiator failed, police forced their way into the room and shot the man, identified as Corky Lee Oliver. The woman suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.
In a March 6 police shooting, two Pueblo police officers said they were chasing a man on foot after confronting him about his alleged violation of a restraining order. Police said he pulled a gun on them. Both officers fired, killing the man at the scene.
Support or opposition to the idea of a national database was moderate among spokespersons for some of Colorado’s political leaders.
“Whether we’re examining marijuana, climate change or crime, good policy decisions depend on good data to provide accurate information on what is or isn’t occurring in our communities,” said Jacque Montgomery, spokeswoman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Daniel Bucheli, spokesman for Colorado U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said, “Rep. Coffman believes it’s important to continue the dialogue between police and the communities they protect and serve. In (Coffman’s 6th Congressional District), the police and the local community have a strong bond and trusting relationship and that is something the police are proud of. In his district, such a database isn’t something that seems necessary right now.”
Part of the motivation for the bill came from a 2016 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report that found the killings of about 545 people by local and state police each year never were counted in national crime records.
Official FBI reports listed an average of 383 people killed by police each year. The new estimate is 928 people killed by police annually in the eight years prior to the report.
An Obama administration task force on policing recommended better data collection as part of its suggestions on criminal justice reform.
President Barack Obama said after meeting with the task force, “There was a great emphasis on the need to collect more data. Right now, we do not have a good sense, and local communities do not have a good sense, of how frequently there may be interactions with police and community members that result in a death, result in a shooting.”
Obama administration U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced creation of a voluntary federal database of police shootings. However, it was not required by law and has largely been ignored by the Trump administration’s Justice Department.
Instead, the reports have come largely from the news media. The most famous was a Washington Post report that found 995 police killings in 2015; 963 in 2016; and 987 in 2017.
Scott, the senator who introduced the bill for the national database with U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, called it the Walter Scott Notification Act.
He named it after an unarmed man who was shot and killed when he ran from a police officer who pulled him over for a broken brake light. The police officer was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December. A bystander’s video proved it was an unwarranted police killing, according to news reports.
Walter Scott is no relation to Sen. Tim Scott, who said the proposed legislation would “better address the issues that lead to officer-related shooting deaths. I believe this can help us keep both our officers and our communities safer.”
States that fail to comply with the reporting requirements would face a 10 percent reduction in federal law enforcement grants and funds.
Concern about police accountability was heightened last week when two Sacramento officers shot and killed a 22-year-old man in his grandparents’ backyard. They believed he was holding a gun. In fact, he had no gun. He was holding his cellphone, according to news reports.
Police believed he had been breaking car windows in the area, which is disputed by his family. The shooting led to tense demonstrations and confrontations with police.