PDs don't accurately track use of force. Here's how they can.
How many agencies can speak accurately and clearly about their use of force rates?
Beginning with the furor over Ferguson, we’ve heard a national call for more accurate reporting of force and a uniform definition of police force.
When I am questioned by a reporter about the “sharp increase” in officer-involved shootings and other police use of force, I immediately turn the question back to the reporter and ask about force numbers in the particular community. I have yet to hear a fact-based and meaningful reply.
Similarly, when I speak to police leaders, I ask about their agencies’ force numbers. The value of having answers was recently driven home to one police chief. We’d met earlier in the day and I’d asked him about the numbers of arrests in his community and followed up with questions about how many arrests involved electronic control devices, canine, batons, etc. He responded with a “pretty good guess.” That afternoon, he and his staff poured over reports from the past year. That evening, a reporter asked him about his agency’s use of force and the chief was able to provide the data and intelligently defend the agency’s performance.
Addressing 21st Century Policing
The discussion on transparency in force, how to collect and analyze force data points, uniformity of force definitions and internal review systems has revealed striking deficiencies in the current system.
The Wall Street Journal found that the FBI’s official tally understated the number of victims by 45 percent. The Washington Post shows that police killings run double the number of the official count maintained by the FBI. Earlier this year, FBI Director James Comey agreed that the FBI’s reports of fatal shootings by police might be significantly underreported. The FBI said it will improve its system for tracking fatal shootings and other violent police encounters nationwide by 2017. Of course, the FBI must rely on data provided by local agencies.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that agencies be required “to collect, maintain, and report data to the Federal Government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has spoken out against additional federal reporting mandates for local law enforcement agencies.
“One of the things we are focusing on at the Department of Justice is not trying to reach down from Washington and dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutia of record keeping,” Lynch said.
Despite headlines and public discussion, there really is not any evidence that police use of force is increasing. Just over two million persons are arrested in the United States each year. Only about two percent of those arrests involve force involving weapons (and only 0.2 percent of arrests involve police using a gun). A suspect is killed in 0.00003 percent of all arrests. Those rates have not significantly changed in the past decade.
Ironically, since we don’t have reliable force data (particularly for non-deadly force), we can’t accurately say whether police use of force is increasing, decreasing or staying the same. Police leaders and trainers acknowledge that we can do better and point to improvements in realistic scenario-based training systems — use of force training and policies are under constant review in many agencies. We just can’t have a real discussion about use of force until we truly measure the scope of it.
The Police Force Analysis System
The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Several vendors provide early warning system software that help agencies track citizen complaints, pursuits, use of force, and other data points important to the agency. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that about one-third of police agencies use some form of early warning system. Even though an agency might have a system in place, that does not mean that the system is inherently effective or that the agency is using the system effectively. The LA Times reported that the LAPD early warning system “routinely flags officers who appear to pose no problem while failing to catch many of those who do.”
The most comprehensive police force analysis system that I’ve seen was recently rolled out. Many learned of the Police Force Analysis System at the IACP Conference in Chicago late last year. The system was conceived by a consulting group of veteran police chiefs and attorneys with extensive experience in all realms of policing and police legal advising and litigation, with the unique contribution of a data analysis scientist who formerly specialized in the development and analysis of national police data for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Police Force Analysis System offers superior risk management tools for police agencies and for those who insure and defend them.
I heard about this system from a colleague and I reached out to the developers, and I recently put the Police Force Analysis System through hard paces. I expected to see a new form of early warning system, hoping for more robust reporting tools and easy user interfaces. What I saw was much, much more.
I’m not a tech genius, so I don’t understand how to build a relational database, but I see the benefits. There was not a single question beginning with “What if I need to determine…” or “Can you show me the trends in…” or “How do I really know how that officer stacks up against others in the area of….” that was not quickly answered with easily grasped graphics (configurable to varying chart and graph options). One need not be a techie to use the system.
The Police Force Analysis System allows a police administrator to effectively identify and track trends in the agency on all aspects of force and other important data inputs. The questions that I’ve often heard in consulting with agencies on use-of-force policy and training were easily answered with data illustrations that non-police community leaders could quickly grasp.
One vital feature of the system is the ability to look beyond just use-of-force rates, whether by a unit, an individual officer, or the entire agency. I was able to use the system to explore force sequencing. For example, when I wanted to know whether decisive early force in an encounter was effective in the particular agency that I was scrutinizing, the system provided a reliable evidence-based answer. It also allowed me to correlate injury rates with various force questions.
The Police Force Analysis System helped me answer questions about the effectiveness of a new de-escalation training program in the agency. The system answers more than just the questions about which officers are using what force and when. It illustrates evidence of what works — and what doesn’t.
These folks are relatively new players in the world of force analysis, but they bring powerful portfolios of experience and education. The Police Force Analysis System is one of the most robust police force data tracking and analytical tools that I’ve seen. As the pressure on law enforcement to mitigate force and de-escalate where possible, this is a tool that is sure to be part of the solution.
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