U.S. shootings data needed

People hold hands in prayer during a rally for the killing of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer Saturday, after a traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C., Thursday, April 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

No one knows for sure whether Walter Scott was the third 2015 fatality from a police shooting or the 20th. And we should know.

But the United States has no database for police shootings, so we can’t find out .

If Mr. Scott’s shocking death is to spur a much-needed national conversation about policing, racial profiling and the use of deadly force, the big-picture number is a key piece of information.

The federal government should see that a comprehensive database is established, to include information about race, age and gender as well as each case’s resolution. What were the circumstances? Was the investigation internal or was it handled by another agency? Was the officer charged? Did the case go to trial? What penalty was awarded? Reporting agencies should be required to provide the information.

Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist, told USA Today recently that it is “so crazy” that such a database doesn’t exist. “We’ve been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the [police] departments didn’t want it. They were concerned with their image and liability.”

At present, the FBI tracks those police shootings that are reported to it, but provides little other information. And the numbers are suspect because police departments are not required to report police shootings as such.

The Centers for Disease Control also has data about police shootings, but they differ significantly from the FBI’s data.

It’s no wonder that the public is suspicious. A police department could conceivably sweep a deadly incident under the rug.

Unless an important Freedom of Information bill is enacted this session in South Carolina, such a coverup is even more possible. Autopsy reports are not considered public information. That is an oversight with serious consequences.

In a 2010 case, Aaron Jacobs was shot to death by police in Sumter County. Police said Jacobs had fired on officers. But the autopsy was not released.

It was only after The Item newspaper in Sumter obtained a copy of the report from a different source that the public learned otherwise: Mr. Jacobs had no gunshot residue on his hands, and he had been shot in the back.

This is not to suggest that the North Charleston Police Department would have been less than forthcoming had the video of Mr. Scott’s shooting not surfaced. The department has tried to act openly from the start, to its credit. Officials with the State Law Enforcement Division, which is doing an independent investigation, have said they were leary of the reported circumstances of the shooting from the outset. But what would have happened without the video is a question that can’t be answered conclusively.

Sadly, in recent months, a number of police shootings have put communities on edge, most recently North Charleston. But the problem isn’t regional. Other police shootings have been investigated in Missouri, New York, Ohio and more.

Policy-makers could benefit from better understanding how often these shootings happen and why. The police could benefit from discovering what went wrong — or right — and using that information to implement better practices.

Communities could benefit from getting the full story so they can make sense of these tragedies. In order to solve problems, people need complete, accurate information. A national database of shootings involving police should be established as soon as possible.