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Data’s Usefulness, And Lack of Availability, Tracking Police Use of Force

Counterintuitively, the most comprehensive databases on police use of force often do not come from government. While local departments steward their own files, journalists and nonprofits maintain the most complete statistics on police use of force nationally.

As police use of force and racial implications drew more media attention, the FBI launched a nationwide use-of-force data collection program in January 2019. The FBI Use-of-Force Data Collection, initially set to be released in summer 2020, includes police shootings that kill, injure or are directed at a person.

The first of its kind from the public sector, the collection tracks race, age, sex and other identifiable characteristics, and specifies whether the subject was armed or resisted arrest. It also reports data on the police officers who were involved.

The initiative comes as racial justice groups demand more transparency, and data professionals advocate for open data. Their efforts have been underway for years.

The FBI’s latest data collection is not comprehensive, however, leading to questions about its efficacy. By July 27, 2020, approximately 41% of the nation’s law enforcement officers had been covered by reporting agencies. Submitting data is voluntary for agencies.

“The data collection can facilitate dialogue and educate the public concerning how law enforcement is trained on use of force,” an FBI public affairs official wrote in an email to GovLoop. “Participation will promote transparency and accountability between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Major law enforcement agencies are not reporting information, which means there will be a data void coming from some of America’s largest cities. Police departments, which would have to submit the information themselves and cover associated costs, have cited resource constraints and data-sharing challenges as barriers to sending the FBI information.

The Phoenix Police Department is not participating in the FBI Use-of-Force Data Collection, though it is engaging in other transparency efforts. The city is building out its own use-of-force police database – a recommendation of the National Police Foundation – and the department will share its information with other national police partnerships including the Police Data Initiative, said Mercedes Fortune, Public Information Sergeant for the Phoenix Police Department. The Police Data Initiative is an open data project with more than 130 participating agencies, according to its website. Its information is not linked to the FBI’s nascent program.

“Our goal and commitment to our community is accountability and transparency,” Fortune said in an email to GovLoop.

The FBI recently made it easier for departments to report data by allowing for uploads instead of manual entry, Fortune said. But Phoenix already had established data-sharing frameworks with other associations, and the police department chose to send its data to existing connections instead, Fortune said.

The Houston Police Department is currently evaluating the cost of converting its record management system to gather FBI-requested data elements, Diana Poor, its Chief Data Officer, told GovLoop. Though it is not currently reporting use-of-force information to the FBI, the department will look for funding sources to submit data after calculating the cost, Poor said.

Houston and Phoenix are the fourth and fifth most populous U.S. cities, respectively.

Local police use-of-force information can be incomplete or inaccurate if not subject to review. A draft research paper found more than double the deaths occurred “as a result of or during an interaction with” law enforcement than what the New York Police Department (NYPD) originally reported for a five-year period. From 2010 to 2015, the department had reported 46 deaths, less than half of the 105 law enforcement-related deaths the study found. The New York Times originally unearthed the report, commissioned by the New York City Health and Mental Hygiene Department.

“More New Yorkers’ deaths are due to law enforcement than are captured by our official surveillance measures,” tweeted then NYC Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, who later controversially dismissed an NYPD request for masks and eventually resigned.

The report found 54% of those killed in police interactions were Black, and legal intervention deaths were “significantly higher” for Black people than white people. The authors concluded “there are significant racial disparities in legal intervention mortality, particularly among unarmed persons.”

Per a later-released report, NYPD, America’s largest police department, had not participated in the FBI’s data collection. NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

The goal of the FBI data collection is to offer an aggregate view of use-of-force incidents. It does not rule on whether an officer acted lawfully.

Though efforts are growing, the lack of a single, holistic open data source makes it difficult to review police use of force on a national scale.

Law enforcement agencies can still submit data to the FBI, which will report more detailed information when it has more data.

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