The government can tell you how many pounds of potatoes are produced each season, but it can’t tell you how many times a police officer has shot and either injured or killed a suspect, because there is no federal mandate to report them.
Texas, however, is about to start. A new law will now require police agencies to report to the attorney general every time an officer shoots someone or gets shot themselves. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill earlier this week after it unanimously passed through both the House and Senate. The bill’s author Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), joins the Texas Standard to discuss this historic legislation.
What was the motivation behind this bill? Why did you focus on creating a database to track shootings by police officers?
“The FBI Director has gone on record as saying that one of the biggest problems we have in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Baltimore, is that we really don’t know how many people are being shot or killed by police officers in this country because there is no place where that information must be reported,” Johnson says. “We know that the 50 states, including the FBI, don’t have databases right now where all this information has to be reported up to a single source. There may be local police departments here and there, like Dallas, who report this information on their website, but there’s no clearinghouse for it, and so we created what we think the FBI would like to have, and certainly I think other states once they see this will consider. We’ve created that clearinghouse at the state level where now every shooting, whether it’s of an officer or of a civilian, has to be reported to our state attorney general.”
With all of the accounts of police shooting civilians in the news, is there any pressure on police departments to fix this lack of information?
“Departments are sensitive to the fact that the public is demanding more transparency, the departments were interested in making sure that they responded to those calls. I believe that the police departments realized that this is the type of reform that they can support and that the public is demanding and that is really gonna help everyone in the long run,” Johnson says. “The truth is going to come out through these reports, and so I think everyone who’s interested in getting to the truth supports the bill with both sides of the argument.”
Did other legislators have concerns about signing this bill into law? How did it get through the legislature this session?
“My colleagues were able to get behind the bill not only because of what’s going on in the news, but because I think they — by and large — were impressed by the fact that both sides of the debate were on board with the legislation. That made them comfortable, to know that law enforcement supported it and civilian groups supported it,” Johnson says.
If Texas is the only state adopting a database like this, won’t that make it look like Texas has an out-of-control police violence problem? When really, we’ll just be the only state that’s reporting accurate numbers.
“I think that people are going to applaud Texas for being willing to take a look and see what the situation is on the ground,” Johnson says. “I can’t predict, obviously, which states are going to follow our lead, but I do believe that this is the type of information that would be helpful for us to have across the country.”
“I’m happy that we’re gonna have facts to work with here in Texas, and I hope the rest of the nation follows suit.”