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'A National Embarrassment': Police Use-of-Force Stats Reveal Roadblocks to Reform

With no national mechanism to collect use of force data, federal efforts at reform may be hampered

Police departments around the country are ineffective at collecting data on their own officers' use-of-force, a DOJ survey has revealed. (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

As protests continue highlighting the widespread scourge of police brutality and anti-black racism in the U.S., the Department of Justice quietly released a survey on national use-of-force statistics that reveal a twofold dilemma: law enforcement agencies are ineffective at collecting such data—and the lack of such information, in turn, may hamper federal efforts at reforming the police.

A year in the making, the DOJ's survey was released last month with no announcement—and it's not hard to see why, experts say. The results reveal "a national embarrassment," University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey P. Alpert told the New York Times, which reported on the survey on Tuesday.

"Right now, all you know is what gets on YouTube," Alpert said.

Indeed, many of the high-profile instances of police brutality that have drawn criticism and protest in the past year are those filmed by bystanders. Viral video footage of an officer attacking teens at a Texas pool party; the vicious arrests of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray; and the violent killings of Eric Garner and Walter Scott by white officers have helped propel the issue into national consciousness. But even in those cases, justice remains elusive.

The Times reports:

The Justice Department survey had the potential to reveal whether officers were more likely to use force in diverse or homogeneous cities; in depressed areas or wealthy suburbs; and in cities or rural towns. Did the racial makeup of the police department matter? Did crime rates?

But... the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely.

Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not.

But does the issue rest only with the police departments themselves, or is it fueled by lackluster federal regulations? As the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) explains, "There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of [use-of-force].... The frequency of police use-of-force events that may be defined as justified or excessive is difficult to estimate."

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The NIJ continues: "There is no national database of officer-involved shootings or incidents in which police use excessive force. Most agencies keep such records, but no mechanism exists to produce a national estimate."

With no such mechanism, the DOJ's survey results could not be analyzed in any meaningful way, the Times writes. That carries broader implications for President Barack Obama's recent entry into criminal justice reform, which saw the creation of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a panel which aims to bring in a new era of community-based law enforcement.

However, the White House has previously ignored the task force's recommendations on collecting use-of-force data, which were published in May. The Obama administration turned down a chance to compel police departments to hand over their statistics on use-of-force, as suggested by the panel, and instead launched a program that allows the departments to publish internal data voluntarily.

The Times continues:

The program is not specifically focused on use-of-force data, but Mr. Obama couched that aspect as a suggestion.

“Departments might track things like incidents of force,” he said at an appearance in Camden, N.J., “so that they can identify and handle problems that could otherwise escalate.”

As justice advocates have long pointed out, withholding such information not only impedes reform, it threatens civil rights. The ACLU last week filed a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department for records detailing encounters between officers and civilians, information which the civil rights group says must be publicized in order to reform the police force.

"As long as police withhold this information, people whose constitutional rights are violated might have no way of pursuing a remedy, and public officials who are considering policy reform will be working in the dark," said Carl Williams, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Added Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts: "The people of Boston deserve to know, and the law says that they are entitled to know, what is happening between civilians and Boston Police Department officers on the streets of Boston. It is not good enough to disclose this information long after it is requested, when the time for people to vindicate their rights in court might have run out."

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