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Missed by a Mile

How hard is it to count deaths by police?

A day before administering a searing condemnation of the police department of Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer, the Department of Justice quietly published a separate report on the number of Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement.

The verdict? In a startling admission, the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirmed that the government’s own data on so-called police-involved deaths have been off for more than a decade — by more than 100 percent.

The report estimates that there were “an average of 928 law-enforcement homicides per year” from 2003-2009 and 2011 — which means that previous yearly tallies by the BJS and the FBI included fewer than half of all such deaths. The FBI, for example, reported an average of only 383 “justifiable homicides by law enforcement” per year over the same period. The BJS was slightly closer to reality, averaging 454.

These numbers, by the way, do not include the deaths of bystanders, deaths during vehicular pursuit, or deaths at the hands of federal agents.

The new report was released at a pivotal moment in the national conversation about policing and the use of force. Not only was the “Ferguson Report” released on Wednesday, but national outrage about violence by the police has spawned recent calls from President Obama and top officials for reforms, beginning with more accurate data on just how many people are killed by the police.

“There was a great emphasis on the need to collect more data,” the president said after a meeting of his task force on policing. “Right now, we do not have a good sense…of how frequently there may be interactions with police and community members that result in death.”

In February, in a moment of candor during a speech at Georgetown University, FBI Director James Comey admitted that, “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country — last week, last year, the last decade. It’s ridiculous.”

The dearth of reliable statistics, widely suspected but never before acknowledged in such detail by a government report, goes to show why Congress last year reauthorized the Death in Custody Reporting Act. The law, an earlier version of which expired in 2006, requires the BJS to compile data on killings by law enforcement and in prisons. That data is to be gathered from a wide range of sources, including coroner’s reports, direct reports from police, media reports, Google alerts, and analysis by program staff. The notion is that this mesh of information will offer a more complete picture than the FBI data, which rely mainly on self-reporting by the police.

However, even in the years before the old reporting law expired, when the BJS was supposedly harvesting information from a wide range of sources, the bureau fell far short of a complete tally. In its best year, it identified only 49 percent of police-involved deaths.