Crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem’s blind spot

Our view: We need re­li­able data on po­lice use of force

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

When the use of force by po­lice re­sults in se­ri­ous in­jury or death to a sus­pect, the con­se­quences are often felt not only by the vic­tim’s fam­ily and friends but by the en­tire com­mu­nity. The deaths of un­armed black men at the hands of po­lice have sparked anger and civil un­rest in cities across the coun­try and prompted calls for re­form of polic­ing meth­ods and tac­tics. Yet rel­a­tively lit­tle is known about how often of­fi­cers use lethal force or how many peo­ple are killed or in­jured in such en­coun­ters each year; some news or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing The Sun, col­lect more in­for­ma­tion on po­lice use of force than lo­cal po­lice depart­ments do be­cause there’s no na­tional re­quire­ment for re­port­ing such in­ci­dents. The Wash­ing­ton Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its ef­forts to track fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings last year. With­out hard, real-time data on what is hap­pen­ing, it’s dif­fi­cult to ac­cu­rately gauge the scope of the prob­lem, let alone de­vise ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions to ad­dress it.

That’s why we’re en­cour­aged by the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s re­cent an­nounce­ment that the agency is mov­ing for­ward with a new ini­tia­tive de­signed to col­lect more data on the fre­quency and cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the use of force by po­lice, in­clud­ing how many peo­ple are killed or se­ri­ously wounded dur­ing en­coun­ters with of­fi­cers or while in po­lice cus­tody. It’s es­sen­tial for po­lice depart­ments to keep track of such in­for­ma­tion not only to pro­mote trans­parency when of­fi­cers are in­volved in al­leged cases of mis­con­duct but also to help re­build the badly frayed re­la­tion­ships of trust be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. If peo­ple don’t trust the po­lice to pro­tect them and if of­fi­cers are viewed as a hos­tile oc­cu­py­ing force, the re­sult is a break­down of the en­tire crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and chaos on the streets.

In an­nounc­ing the pro­gram DOJ of­fi­cials said they presently have lit­tle more than anec­do­tal in­for­ma­tion to go on, and that’s not enough to form the ba­sis for sound poli­cies. Next year the FBI will launch a pilot pro­gram aimed at gath­er­ing more com­plete data on when, where and how often po­lice use force, in­clud­ing in cases that don’t re­sult in a sus­pect’s death. That’s im­por­tant be­cause cur­rently there’s no le­gal re­quire­ment for po­lice depart­ments to re­port in­ci­dents of non-lethal use of force. Such cases prob­a­bly com­prise the vast ma­jor­ity of po­lice use-of-force in­ci­dents, but be­cause they’re never re­ported, even when they re­sult in se­ri­ous in­jury to a sus­pect or prompt al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct, most such en­coun­ters fly un­der the radar of fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment doesn’t have the le­gal author­ity to com­pel the na­tion’s 18,000 state and lo­cal po­lice depart­ments to pro­vide such data — that would re­quire an act of Congress, which has in the past failed to make such re­port­ing manda­tory. As a re­sult only about 3 per­cent of the coun­try’s lo­cal law-en­force­ment agen­cies cur­rently sub­mit data re­gard­ing non-fa­tal en­coun­ters be­tween po­lice and civil­ians.

But the DOJ can re­quire fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies like the FBI, the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Bu­reau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives to keep more com­plete records on use-of-force in­ci­dents that don’t re­sult in death, and it can also en­cour­age the na­tion’s large ur­ban po­lice depart­ments to vol­un­tar­ily com­ply with re­quests for more in­for­ma­tion about non-deadly en­coun­ters with peo­ple they de­tain or ar­rest. Those re­ports could pro­vide valu­able in­sight into such ques­tions as the fre­quency and cir­cum­stances un­der which force is used, in­clud­ing the gender and race of the of­fi­cers and sus­pects, whether the sus­pects were armed and what types of weapons were used. Of­fi­cials say the depart­ment is en­cour­aged by the co­op­er­a­tion it has al­ready seen from lo­cal agen­cies that have agreed to share their data.

The FBI also has be­gun de­vel­op­ing a com­put­er­ized sys­tem that will make it eas­ier for lo­cal law-en­force­ment agen­cies to in­put in­for­ma­tion on use-of-force in­ci­dents in the hope that more of them will par­tic­i­pate vol­un­tar­ily. Po­lice depart­ments need to re­al­ize that know­ing more about their of­fi­cers’ use of force ul­ti­mately will en­able them to do their jobs more ef­fec­tively and im­prove their in­ter­ac­tions with the pub­lic. In an era in which those in­ter­ac­tions loom large in the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of what po­lice are and aren’t do­ing to pro­tect the com­mu­ni­ties they’re sworn to serve, that can’t hap­pen too soon.

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