Will police use of force databases work?

The lack of data on use of force in the United States is incredibly frustrating — we can speak in generalities based on various attempts at tracking who is brutalised by police, how, and in what context, but actual hard data rooted in mandatory reporting would be a really great thing to have. There are a lot of components to the police violence epidemic, and having data won’t magically solve them, but it will really help. It also just makes sense: Police departments should be required to report and track use of force incidents and fatalities, regardless of context, because it will provide them with useful feedback on what they are doing.

I mean, if you work on a production line and a worker is injured, you’re supposed to report it. So that you can find out how and why that worker was injured, whether similar injuries can be prevented in the future, and whether you have a systemic injury problem. And so that supervisors are reminded that there is a system for accountability, and they should not push workers to do something that is dangerous, because if they do, and something happens, they’re not going to get away with it. Police officers who have use of force policies and apply them notice a dramatic downtick in use of force overall, and especially fatalities, and this is one reason why: There’s a system. Someone is watching. There will be accountability.

So on the federal level, there is still no requirement to collect and report data on police killings in use of force incidents, but there is a mandate to collect data on death in custody. And it’s not going so well. Information is being manipulated, massaged, and adjusted for more favorable outcomes, which both obscures the actual data and means that departments aren’t really accountable. If 30 people die in your jail in 2016 and you only report five deaths, what happened to those other 25? If you report five the next year but actually have 40, your on paper numbers look okay — at least deaths aren’t going up, right? — but in reality, you have a serious problem.

This should be super easy: If you are a law enforcement agency and someone dies in custody or on scene, you write up a detailed report and you submit it to the state, which submits it to the federal government. Every time. Period. Whether the death is a total accident that was utterly unpreventable, or a ‘clean kill,’ or anything between. Someone dies, you report it. You provide as much information as you can about the situation and what happened. You offer demographic information: Age, race, gender, disability status, any other relevant data.

Those reports can be used to track what’s going on in your department (‘oh hey, after they implemented a use of force policy, deaths dropped 40 percent in the first year!’). They can be used to look at larger trends in your region, and to compare with departments in similar areas; SFPD sees very different situations than, say, the Yolo County Sheriff, but may find LAPD data useful. The Highway Patrol can look at statistics from various areas of the state. Agencies can see if joint operations are more or less likely to end in fatalities.

The thing about collecting as much data as possible is that you can do so much with it! It’s great not just for right now, but for the long term. Someone who wants to conduct a 20-year longitudinal study on police violence could benefit from all of this data, beautifully organised and centralised and publicly available. A historian exploring Black Lives Matter 100 years in the future would love to have this information. Other nations dealing with law enforcement policy matters might find it useful. You could drill down to things like ‘does militarisation affect use of force statistics?’ or ‘if I filter departments for this specific piece of equipment, what kinds of trends will emerge?’ There’s so much amazing research potential here that could save lives, improve policing, and make the world a better place.

Which is why we need comprehensive databasing, but as we’re seeing with the Deaths In Custody Reporting Act, it only works if people are willing to use it. And the thing is that I understand why departments don’t want to use it: Because especially at first, deaths are going to be so high for at least some departments that it’s going to bring up a lot of awkward questions, and some embarrassment as well. Which it should. That is the whole point. This is like tracking infectious disease in hospitals: When you see the full scope of the problem, you can go ‘okay, well, here’s what we need to do, here’s how handwashing stations helped, here’s how restricting ICU access helped,’ and so forth. We cannot fix a problem without fully comprehending what is going on, where, when, how, and who is involved.

This shouldn’t be hard. Repeatedly, we hear the claim that most cops are great, except for a few bad apples, and that they’re all committed to public safety. This is the time for all those good cops to step up and say yes, let’s start databasing, and pushing our state to enacts laws to make databasing mandatory and consistent. Let’s use platforms like URSUS that were designed for this purpose. Let’s see what’s going on, and act in good faith, and work with people on fixing it, this is a fantastic opportunity. And let’s be unflinching about this. Let’s report all the data, and if it makes us look bad, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how to be better. This is a task made for good cops. Right here. So do it.

Image: Ledger, davesandford, Flickr