How to Collect and Analyze Police Use of Force Data

August 31, 2016 12:00 pm PST | Public Safety

Editor’s Note: Bob Scales is the managing partner of Sanford Olson & Scales. Mr. Scales was a Deputy Prosecutor in King County, Washington from 1994 to 2000 and he served as a public safety policy advisor to three Seattle mayors for over a decade. This is the second post in a three-part series. Read the first post here.

There is no uniform process for police agencies to collect use of force information. Many departments have developed reporting forms that are completed by the officers using force and then attached to the case report, but they vary greatly from agency to agency.

Only a handful of agencies store this information in a database that’s suitable for analysis. A growing number of agencies are using off-the-shelf records management systems to enter basic force data and store electronic copies of the reports. These systems expedite the review of individual force incidents, but they have limited analytical and reporting capabilities.

A Closer Look at the State of Washington

Police agencies already possess the necessary information to build a comprehensive national database on police use of force.

In a 2016 survey of the 274 law enforcement agencies in the state of Washington, Sanford Olson & Scales found that 93 percent track their use of force incidents in some manner. When an officer uses force, the officer’s written narrative contains the critical information needed to assess the legitimacy of the force used including the circumstances leading up to the use of force, the threat to the officer or others, the level of suspect resistance, the types of force used, a description of injuries to the officer and suspect, and the final disposition of the incident.

The state legislature recently formed a joint task force on Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing and we presented our work with Seattle University to build a statewide use of force database of 10,000 use of force reports from 150 departments. Watch a video of the presentation (beginning at 3:07:00) and read the slides.

How We Analyze the Data

We have developed the Police Force Analysis System™ (P-FAS) to use the police reports to examine force incidents using the governing legal standards. The US Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor set forth several factors — severity of the crime at issue, if the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, if the suspect actively resisted, and if the suspected attempted to evade arrest by flight — to determine if the officer’s force was reasonable and necessary. All of the information necessary to analyze a case under the Graham v. Connor standard is contained in the officers’ narrative reports.

Use of force dashboard
This dashboard provides a comprehensive overview of when and where force incidents are occurring and can be filtered to examine each individual officer’s uses of force.

Our coding method extracts 150 relevant variables from the force reports and officer narratives for evaluation using Force Justification and Force Factor Analysis. One of the key advantages of using P-FAS is that the required data already exists within most police agencies and it does not require the use of any particular IT system or specialized reporting forms. Historical data can also be collected to provide a baseline and benchmarks for measuring the impacts of changes in policies, practices and training.

This scorecard provides a ranking of key performance indicators that allow an agency to assess its relative use of force risks compared to other similar agencies in the database.

One of the most important aspects of P-FAS is that it permits interagency comparisons. Since the data collection process is standardized and the analysis is conducted in a consistent manner, we can for the first time make apples-to-apples comparisons of force practices between multiple agencies.

Stay tuned for part three of the series, which focuses on how to leverage use of force data.

If you’d like to learn how to create your own compelling visualizations, sign up for our free online course on Visualization and Communication through the Socrata Data Academy.

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