In the past few years, calls for greater police accountability have grown louder with every high-profile shooting and death at the hands of law enforcement officers.
But experts say it’s difficult to prove claims that police are increasingly using unnecessary or excessive force against specific communities. That’s because data is inconsistent on police stops and use-of-force incidents, including officer-involved shootings. And without enough comparative information, it’s hard to know which departments use more, or less force.
“There is no current standard and there’s no best practices,” said Meredith Gamson-Smiedt, executive director of UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity. “Individual agencies are pretty much on their own in terms of how they collect data, how they store data and what they do with it once they do obtain it.”
For the past year, Capital Public Radio attempted to collect data on use of force incidents from 22 local agencies. We also requested overall arrests and citations data to get an idea of how much departments are interacting with the public in a capacity that might result in use of force. We wanted to see how often officers use force and whether some agencies have more incidents than others.
We encountered varying levels of difficulty when we requested this data -- some departments sent information within hours or days, while others took months. Often, we were referred to multiple city or county employees before receiving information.
David Bejarano, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said for most agencies, use of force incidents are rare compared to overall interactions between police and the public.
“And when force is used, it’s usually at the minimal level,” Bejarano said.
Data supplied by area law enforcement agencies show the incidents make up anywhere between .1 to 3 percent of arrests. But how do those figures compare to agencies outside of the region? Is that a high number or is it, as it seems, relatively low?
One takeaway from the numbers collected is that it’s not possible to analyze and compare data from all the agencies because each department collects information differently -- the categories and definitions for use of force and arrest vary. The size of an agency and the size of its jurisdiction, as well as overall crime rates, also need to be taken account when analyzing the numbers.
But it’s worth digging into all this disparate data. As the public conversation continues to focus on trust between communities and law agencies, it’s important to have a snapshot of each department, how much each uses force and how that information is collected.
Differing Definitions And Standards For Collecting Data
Agencies define “use of force” in a variety of ways. One department could categorize use of force as control holds (when an officer uses physical means of subduing a suspect), K-9 bites, and use of firearm, Taser or baton. But another department might parse more categories for control holds, such as carotid control holds, restraining a suspect in the neck, or wrap restraints.
“The way departments categorize information causes difficulties in being able to compare across [the board],” said Gamson-Smiedt. Comparing departments would be like trying to find similarities between apples and oranges.
Capital Public Radio found that most departments in the Sacramento region do collect some use of force information.
Sutter County Sheriff J. Paul Parker said his deputies are required to fill out a form when any kind of force above “a control hold” is used. Sutter County also differentiates whether force was “displayed” or “used” -- whether a deputy shows a firearm as opposed to firing it. Parker said his office began this type of data collection in the early 2000s.
“You want to be able to identify deputies with [a] training issue ... if you have deputies that are maybe not cut out for these jobs, maybe they’re not bullies, maybe they’re the opposite, maybe they’re afraid and so, they resort to some type of weapon to defend themselves where it’s not called for,” he said.
After these incidents, deputies fill out a form with checkboxes. That form goes to supervisors and up the command chain, and eventually entered into a database. Parker said it takes deputies five minutes to fill out the form and another few minutes for someone to enter numbers into the database. The Sutter County Sheriff’s Office provided Capital Public Radio information within hours of our request.
“[Law enforcement agencies have] a big responsibility, and with big responsibilities, you have to be able to audit yourself,” said Parker.
Other departments insisted that they do not collect use of force incidents in a way that could be easily counted.
Yolo County Sheriff’s Department gave Capital Public Radio use of force incidents related only to arrests involving resisting arrest or battery of an officer. Agencies point to that statistic because they say it is in those situations that officers are most likely to use force.
The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office did not send use-of-force data. Instead, officials from the county gave numbers that show arrests involving incidents in which a peace officer was considered to be a victim and incidents in which someone was arrested for “resisting arrest.”
Stanislaus County officials also sent the following statement:
“This system is not automated and there are no data sets available. The Department answers an estimated 80,000 calls for service per year. While all of those calls for service may not result in a report being generated, this amount of calls represents a large body of work. The Sheriff recognizes that such data collection is important, and the Department is presently working towards implementing a system that allows for data sets to be collected. This is in conjunction with the Department of Justice, but this process is just in its infancy.”
State and Federal Reporting Requirements Are Mostly Voluntary
Police departments are not required to report use of force data to the U.S. Department of Justice, though many will voluntarily turn in other data when the department conducts surveys and supplemental reports on justifiable homicide.
California does require its departments to turn in "deaths in custody." Agencies may also send a supplemental homicide reports, which is in the "justifiable homicide" category, to the state Department of Justice, which then sends the information to the FBI.
James Comey, director of the FBI said in a speech in February that in the aftermath of the riots in Ferguson, he attempted to find out how many people shot by police in the United States were African-American. But his staff were unable to give him an answer. Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings are not consistently reported to the FBI.
“The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us. ‘Data’ seems a dry and boring word but, without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better,” Comey said in the speech.
He continued: “How can we address concerns about “use of force,” how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities. The FBI tracks and publishes the number of ‘justifiable homicides’ reported by police departments. But, again, reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all.”
In California, agencies are required to report deaths that occur during custody -- while a person is in jail or during the arrest process. But previously, there is no requirement for police departments to turn in general use of force information to the Department of Justice.
Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department said in a press conference lack of comparative information can be a problem.
“Our biggest problem has been an absence of statewide data,” he said. “It’s very difficult for me to have context for what happens in Los Angeles when there is no comparative data statewide.”
But even those who have been collecting the data cautions against sweeping mandates.
Sutter County Sheriff Parker said he can see a situation where tracking might strain local resources.
“Each [department] has their own unique thing.” he said. “I have a relatively small patrol force, about 40 to 50 guys, but if I have a patrol force of 3,000, that might entail some real manpower hours to track all of this stuff.”
Use of Force Data Collection Efforts Underway
In the past few years, efforts have emerged at the state and federal level to improve collection and analysis involving use of force. Many of these efforts focus on incidents where there’s been an injury to officers and citizens -- because these are the situations that communities and agencies are most concerned about.
Data projects at the federal and state levels are trying to resolve that part of the problem. In June, the White House announced the Open Data Initiative, which will publish datasets from 21 law enforcement agencies in major U.S. cities.
The California Department of Justice launched its own data initiative, OpenJustice. The idea is to make three datasets -- custody-related deaths, arrests and deaths and assaults of officers -- available on a public web portal.
Both the White House Data Initiative and California’s OpenJustice project will rely on scientists and other experts to analyze the data and help pinpoint trends in policing practices.
Meanwhile, UCLA’s Center For Policing Equity is working on a Justice Database. The project, which will be dependent on agreements with police departments nationwide, will collect data from those agencies in ways that can be compared and analyzed.
Gamson-Smiedt, director of the center, said the idea is to be able to collect information that will allow for comparisons across departments. Analysis will also incorporate multiple layers of data including education, population density and employment rates within jurisdictions.
Unlike the White House and the California Department Of Justice, CPE’s effort won’t publish raw datasets. But the group will release reports that will show aggregate data. The project is meant to be a tool for law enforcement agencies and help them determine best practices for data collection and how that should be analyzed. Gamson-Smiedt said the group is expecting to have a first round of analysis next year.
Meanwhile, two police accountability measures are on the governor’s desk waiting to be signed. Assembly Bill 71 would require law enforcement agencies to report use of force incidents that cause serious injury, including officer-involved shootings, to the California Department of Justice.
Under the bill, demographic information for both the police officer and the civilian will be collected. Assembly Bill 953 would require agencies to collect information about police stops and also collect information about the individual’s race, reason for the encounter and the outcome.
Earlier this year, a bill, S. 1476, was introduced in Congress to try and expand reporting on deaths while in custody and when police are injured on the job.
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