Police in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 17, 2014, advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers have sparked debate and protests across the nation. According to an Associated Press report, there are "no firm statistics" to determine if this is a new trend or merely business as usual when it comes to policing the black community.

"We have a huge scandal in that we don't have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody," Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told AP. "That's outrageous."

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According to the news site, police homicide records that have been kept amount to raw data and don't follow a structured process. AP notes that law-enforcement agencies voluntarily submit information surrounding the deaths but that at best, that data is incomplete. 

For example, "the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports … track justifiable police homicides—there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013—but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law-enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren't required," AP reports.

The Wall Street Journal found—after a comprehensive analysis of the "latest data from 105 of the country's largest police agencies"—that federal data did not accurately report hundreds of fatal police encounters. The study also noted that "more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved."

"We want a comprehensive picture … so people can be aware of what really goes on, and not the claptrap put out by people with agendas," David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told AP.

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In recent months the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—both unarmed African-American men killed while in police custody—and subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict the officers responsible for their deaths, have caused intense debate and protest across the country.  

"African-American communities are tired of being over-policed, over-prosecuted, sent to prison, having men taken away from their communities, having families broken," said Inimai Chettiar of the New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice. "I think there's much more than just an instinctual sense that there is something amiss in these communities. I think people are tired of 'tough on crime.' "

Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of UCLA's Center for Policing Equity, told AP that the issue is trending because social media and public attention have helped the issue go viral. "Once something is trending, so that it's in the American consciousness, people become aware of it," he said. "The reason we're hearing about this is because we're hearing about it. It has its own momentum."

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According to AP, Goff has been hard at work—with funding from the Department of Justice, the National Science Foundation and private groups—to create a policing database that would keep track of not only the number of police-involved deaths but also the number of police stops and uses of force.    

"Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What are the actual numbers?" Goff said, according to AP. "You know, when a plane crashes, it feels all of a sudden like it's not safe to fly. But if you look at the statistics, it's way safer to fly—and always has been—than to drive a car."

Read more at the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.