While the FBI has faced much criticism recently for not fully counting the number of killings by police, the agency has also reportedly understated the number of police officers killed in vehicle pursuits.
According to data obtained by USA Today, the FBI recorded only 24 of these deaths since 1980. But Dept. of Transportation records show more than 370 officers were killed, during police chases, from 1980-2014. That’s more than 15 times the amount that the FBI reported.
The FBI does not dispute the findings from USA Today but says it can only go by what individual police departments report, and many decline to report officer- related deaths. Private groups- like the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund -have the most comprehensive list of police officers killed in chases.
Officials with the think-tank, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) say, “The fact that these numbers have been undercounted further emphasizes the magnitude of the problem and the need for sensible restrictions on pursuit driving.”
Another reason for the lower count is the FBI was labeling the vehicle pursuit deaths as “automobile accidents.” However, the chases are a “distinct and dangerous” activity and should be noted differently in these reports.
“The data makes a difference,” said Chuck Wexler with PERF.
The FBI in 2010 recognized the “misleading nature” of labeling police chases as “automobile accidents” and revised its internal record-keeping to count police chases more accurately. Their annual published report, however, does not reflect the new record-keeping.
The FBI said in a statement that it will improve its public reporting of officers killed in chases when it completes a “new database system” that is “currently in the development stages,” USA Today reports.
The rare instance in which the FBI reported that an officer died while engaged in a vehicle pursuit was when the fleeing driver “directly caused” the officer’s death. For example, if the suspect rammed the officer’s vehicle or forced the police car off the road . But in most of these cases, the officer lost control of the car or motorcycle and there was no “direct involvement” with the fleeing driver .
The FBI publishes an annual report titled, “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted.” The agency uses it to “spot trends, develop training and issue safety bulletins.”
A 2011 study showed that pursuits haven’t gotten any safer over time, despite improvements in training and vehicle safety.