How One System Leverages Police Use of Force Data

September 26, 2016 12:00 pm PDT | 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 final post in a three-part series. Read the first and second post here.

Across the country, police departments are under increasing pressure to become more open and transparent. Last year President Obama launched the Police Data Initiative which has gathered over 100 different datasets from 75 police departments. While the raw data has been posted online in spreadsheets, the scope of the information varies from agency to agency limiting its value for research purposes.

Learn how Socrata for Public Safety is helping police departments across the country.

According to a recent report from the Rand Corporation, “police organizations need the capacity to collect, process, and analyze data and then apply the results constructively.” In order to develop evidence-based best practices, we need to have an accurate, consistent, and comprehensive data source that will allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of policies and programs. The required data already exists within every police department, but it is rarely compiled or stored in a format that is suitable for analysis.

We (Sanford Olson & Scales) developed the Police Force Analysis System™ (P-FAS) to extract the salient information from existing police incident reports and officer narrative statements using a standardized coding schema. The agency is given a series of interactive dashboards that provide a comprehensive risk assessment using the governing legal standards to determine the constitutionality of force used. P-FAS contains force data from multiple departments which, for the first time, permits interagency comparisons of force practices.

A dashboard from the Police Force Analysis Network™ that shows the how often different force tactics and weapons are used by 24 law enforcement agencies.
A dashboard from the Police Force Analysis Network™ that shows the how often different force tactics and weapons are used by 24 law enforcement agencies.

The system helps police departments assess their risks, improve their practices, and measure the outcomes of reform. P-FAS provides both qualitative and quantitative information that can be used to identify officers with a higher risk profile permitting early interventions and reducing complaints and lawsuits. Ongoing data collection enables longitudinal studies that can assess the impacts and outcomes of changes to policies, practices, and training programs.

Support Existing Police Efforts

Earlier this year, the Vice President of Lexipol called P-FAS the “most comprehensive police force analysis system,” he had ever seen. Some agencies have posted their P-FAS dashboards on their websites providing the public with an unprecedented view inside local law enforcement practices. Continued use of the system in conjunction with proactive management practices will help agencies reduce their liability from complaints and lawsuits and improve the community’s trust and confidence in their officers. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year to support policing reforms including new technologies like body worn cameras. Unfortunately there is very little money being spent on research and evaluation, leading many departments to abandon their efforts to implement expensive unproven reform programs.

Future Opportunities in the State of Washington and Beyond

We are in the process of building a statewide force analysis system for the 274 law enforcement agencies in Washington State. We have collected more than 10,000 use of force reports and are working with Seattle University’s Center for the Study of Crime and Justice to obtain grant funding to build the database. We have presented some of our preliminary findings to the Washington State Joint Legislative Task Force on Deadly Force and Community Policing (video starts at 3:07:00) and we are working with agencies in several states to help them improve their use of force policies and training programs. Our ultimate goal is to build a national use of force database that will support research and best practice development. The costs to build such a system would be a small fraction of the payments made for police misconduct litigation and the costs of implementing comprehensive policing reforms. A national policing data network could be developed for an average cost of less than $2,000 per agency.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. We cannot expect to make significant strides in reforming our police agencies and improving community trust in law enforcement until we are able to measure the impacts of our efforts. Creating a national use of force database is the first step to reaching that goal.


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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