For 10 years, police in California have significantly underreported the number of officer-involved shootings to the Office of the Attorney General, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review. As a result of the hundreds of reports omitted, the California Department of Justice is missing data on nearly 30 percent of the officer-involved shootings since 2006, the study found.
California and Texas are the only two states in the country with mandatory reporting requirements for officer-involved shootings. In California, the law requires local police to report a police shooting to the Office of the Attorney General within 10 days after the death.
The California Department of Justice reports 1,046 deaths from officer-involved shootings between 2006 and 2015. But when researchers from the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University searched through public records available online, they were able to find and confirm 1,472 killings in that same period — 426 more deaths than the official number tallied by state authorities from mandatory police reports.
Police in Texas underreported the number of deaths from officer-involved shootings by 26 percent.
“We're not saying there's anything nefarious going on with police agencies reporting data,” said Howard E. Williams, one of the study's authors, who is a lecturer at Texas State University and the former chief of police in San Marcos, Texas. “They hold press conferences after officer-involved shootings, so it's not like the information isn't publicly available. But it’s just not making it to official reporting databases.”
Brenda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman from the office of Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, confirmed in an email to L.A. Weekly that the California Department of Justice has identified “some discrepancies” in the data on fatal officer-involved shooting deaths. “Data completeness and accuracy are very important to the department,” Gonzalez wrote, “and our office is in the process of following up with appropriate agencies.”
Williams and his co-authors, Dr. Scott Bowman and Jordan Jung, compiled data from media reports and news releases from police on shootings and scanned public databases like Lexus Nexus. They also made comparisons to the data on police shootings that departments report voluntarily to the FBI, Bureau of Justice and Centers for Disease Control. All of the databases, state and federal, were found to be incomplete and unreliable, the study reports.
Williams provided L.A. Weekly with a breakdown of the omitted shooting reports by department. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department showed the largest disparity of fatal police shootings of any department in Southern California, with 33 incident reports omitted from the Attorney General's official count between 2006 and 2015. The Los Angeles Police Department was second, with 21 omissions; the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department was third, with 12.
Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the L.A. Country Sheriff's Department, emailed a statement to L.A. Weekly attributing the data discrepancy to a “clerical error” that was “inadvertently overlooked in the reporting process” from 2006 to 2011. Though the Sheriff's Department states that it corrected the problem in 2013, data from the TSU study reveals the Sheriff's Department failed to report two deaths that year from officer-involved shootings and two additional deaths in 2014.
Even though the law in California mandates the filing of a report on fatal officer-involved shootings, there appears to be no criminal or administrative sanctions prescribed by law for failure to comply, the report states. Clerical errors, lack of oversight and jurisdictional disputes are the reasons most often given by police spokespersons when asked why the shootings were not reported, according to the study.
Williams told L.A. Weekly that correct data on the incidence of officer-involved shootings is critical to inform the discussion on changes to public policy and police procedures in the use of deadly force. A good-faith effort to report on the situation in California can at best be only about 70 percent right, Williams said.
“Without being able to know data and see what these things are, all we can do is guess at changes in public policy and changes in police procedures, and that is no way to solve problems of this severity.”