The Need for Data to Drive Police Reform

August 24, 2016 6:27 am 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, Wash., from 1994 to 2000 and he served as a public safety policy advisor to three Seattle mayors for over a decade. He represented the city of Seattle during the Department of Justice’s pattern or practice investigation of the Seattle Police Department and then managed the reform process as the Compliance Coordinator under the subsequent Consent Decree.

This is the first post in a three-part series.

The private sector has long used business intelligence systems to drive decision-making: companies use data to improve efficiency and increase profits, doctors rely on scientific research to treat their patients and save lives, and the insurance industry uses complex algorithms to assess risks and set premiums.

By contrast, governments have been slow to embrace the concept of evidence-based decision-making. Public safety is an exception. Over the last 20 years, many law enforcement agencies have implemented CompStat-like programs to leverage crime data and more effectively deploy police resources. These systems have been credited for helping drive the steady decline in crimes rates across the country, since 1994.

Today, law enforcement agencies are facing challenges as a result of actions, that many consider criminal, of their fellow officers. Controversy is amplified by a handful of YouTube videos that are endlessly dissected and criticized, and we lack comprehensive statistics to give an accurate picture of how officers are engaging with the public on a daily basis.

In response to these national concerns, officers are being prosecuted, civil rights investigations are being initiated, lawsuits are being filed, DOJ consent decrees are being entered into, body cameras are being worn, task forces are being formed, and a plethora of new recommendations for policies, training, and accountability measures are being made.

Unfortunately, all of these remedial measures are being undertaken in a vacuum since there is virtually no data available on when, where, why, and how officers use force. We do not even know how many people are killed every year by the police much less how often the country’s 800,000 officers are using less lethal types of force.

Here’s what we know about assaults on officers:

The FBI does maintain a national database (LEOKA) on law enforcement officers who have been killed or assaulted. In 2014, 51 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty and another 48,315 officers were assaulted.

And, here’s what we know about uses of force by officers:

Using data from crowdsourcing sites such as the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Mapping Police Violence, it appears that between 1,000 and 1,200 people are killed each year by police officers. The only national data available on how often officers use less lethal force comes not from law enforcement agencies, but from a survey of the general public. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Police-Public Contact Survey is conducted every three years and in 2011 an estimated 400,000 drivers stopped by the police had physical force used against them while another 370,000 pedestrians were subjected to some — verbal and/or physical — type of force.

Since there is no reliable and systematic method for collecting use of force data, we will never know if any of the many reforms and initiatives that are currently being implemented are having any impact on reducing the number of officer involved deaths or curtailing the number of unnecessary or excessive uses of less lethal force.

Most police officers will go their entire careers without ever having to discharge their firearm in the line of duty, much less be involved in a shooting death, yet it is clear that police are using less lethal types of force on a routine and regular basis. In order to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of policies, training programs, and accountability systems, it is essential that we begin collecting and analyzing data on all uses of force and not just deadly force incidents.

Stay tuned for part two of the series, which focuses on data collection and analysis.

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