When these police officers fire their weapons, the public should know about it. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
When these police officers fire their weapons, the public should know about it. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson, Missouri, yesterday to assure the community that the federal government will be taking an active role in the investigation of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But Brown's death raises larger questions about the use of force by police that Holder and President Barack Obama need to confront.

This summer, three men in three states have died at the hands of police in questionable incidents. Clearly local police, increasingly militaristic, are also becoming increasingly aggressive. Or are they? That’s the trouble: No one really knows.

State and local governments are not required to report any data on the use of force by police -- and some don’t, producing an incomplete picture. In 2010, police officers killed 387 people in “justifiable homicides,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report. That number is up by almost one-third since 2000, after falling steadily in the previous decade.

Justifiable homicides by police reflect only the worst cases. What about the number of police shootings? The number of shots fired? The number of police injuries? Cases of excessive physical force? Civilian complaints? The federal government does not require any of that information to be collected and reported. It should.

In 1994, Congress directed the attorney general to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and “publish an annual summary of the data.” But the Justice Department has mostly ignored that mandate. Other than periodic public surveys that ask about police interactions, there is a dearth of data on the use of force by police departments. Holder should direct the Justice Department to implement the 1994 mandate so that the public can get a clear picture of the problem and hold government leaders accountable for improving it.

Congress should also consider legislation requiring local and state governments to collect and publicly report data on the use of force by and against police. Although some police departments are more restrained than they once were in the use of guns, in part because crime is lower, such reports would allow government officials to learn more about which kinds of strategies and practices work best at reducing crime and defusing tension. No less important, the public has a right to see where progress is occurring -- and where it is not.

There is also more the Obama administration can do to curb excessive but not deadly displays of force, which were on shocking display last week in Ferguson, enabled by the deployment of military-style battalions, armed and fortified courtesy of the Defense Department’s 1033 program. The program, which provides local and state police departments with surplus military supplies, also lacks meaningful federal oversight. As police departments begin to resemble army units, there is a clear need not only for improved training, but also for greater accountability. And that starts with better data.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel should conduct a review of the 1033 program. And the president should extend an olive branch to Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who criticized the militaristic response in Ferguson, and encourage him to work with Democrats who share his concerns, one of whom has already announced plans to introduce a bill limiting the Pentagon's weaponry giveaway.

Holder was right to go to Ferguson. Now he and his boss can further help the situation there by pushing for reform nationwide.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.