The Oakland PD's Dramatic Drop In Use-Of-Force Incidents Is All Bullshit

from the numbers-massaged-and-manually-pleasured dept

Well, this post of mine has aged terribly.

Back in 2014, I breathlessly reported the Oakland PD’s adoption of body cameras had resulted in sweeping improvements to its use of force. Deadly force usage had dropped to nothing, reducing the number of people killed by cops from eight per year to zero.

That still holds. If you just look at dead bodies, you’ll see that the Oakland PD had produced zero corpses in the 18 months following the installation of body cameras. But other stats in that report are a bit more questionable.

[Mayor] Jean Quan said Oakland police officers had 2,186 use-of-force incidents in 2009, the last year that no officers wore body cameras, and that number declined to 836 such incidents last year and to only 572 incidents so far this year, with just two weeks remaining.

Were body cams really the panacea? Did this program actually introduce accountability?

Unfortunately, it appears the body cams changed nothing. Precipitous drops in use of force incidents have continued. Year after year, the Oakland PD appeared to improve its relationship to the public in terms of subjecting them to physical restraint or bullets.

But the drop observed here has turned out to be too good to be true. Turns out the easiest way to reduce use of force stats is to… stop reporting uses of force.

[I]n September 2018, the Oakland police’s inspector general, an internal watchdog, found that officers under-reported the number of times they pointed their guns at people. In November, the department’s independent monitor confirmed the inspector general’s determination while also noting multiple cases in which officers struck or wrestled with people and failed to report it.

The report [PDF] by the Oakland PD’s Inspector General shows officers fudging numbers to make it appear as though the force was using less force. There may have been little to no improvement whatsoever, even with the addition of body cameras. I mean, thank god the force didn’t keep killing eight people a year, but beyond the periodic homicide, there has been little improvement.

Substantial drops in several use of force stats prompted this IG investigation, as well as an internal review initiated by the PD itself. What investigators found was very little change in use of force habits, but a lot of change in use of force documentation.

Pulling a sample of incidents in which use of force would be expected, the OIG found officers simply weren’t documenting their force deployments.

All documentation and available video footage for the 47 incidents were reviewed. Of these 47 incidents, the auditors identified 17 in which a reportable use of force went unreported (no use of force form was completed).

You’ve heard the “bad apples” excuse. It appears the rotten apples within the Oakland PD tend to gravitate towards each other.

Twelve of the 17 incidents of underreporting involved four squads of officers.

It’s not all bad news, though. The department was at least forward-thinking enough to believe certain cases might need additional review. This policy would at least give a second pass to “contempt of cop” arrests.

The Chief published a Special Order requiring supervisory review of PDRD footage for incidents involving Penal Code 69, 148, and 243(b)(c) arrests (threatening an officer, resisting arrest, battery on an officer) in late November 2018.

But there’s plenty of bad news. The Oakland PD instituted policies meant to compile objective reporting of use of force incidents. But then it undermined its own policies by allowing officers to make judgment calls on reporting.

In practice, a police officer’s “intention” is a dominant factor in determining whether the pointing of the firearm at the subject(s) is reportable, a result of an inadequately designed policy.

Because of these deficiencies, the Oakland PD revamped its policies in 2018. This resulted in a dramatic change in use of force stats, albeit not in the direction one would hope.

[B]eginning in October 2018, the total number of reported uses of force (all types of force) increased dramatically, by nearly 300% between January and May 2018 and January and May 2019.

So, it’s mostly bad news, highlighted by the uptick in force deployment post-policy fix. Even with the fixes, the OIG found even more under-reporting.

Upon review of the associated video recordings for the 47 incidents likely to involve force in which the arrests were more probable to have involved a use of force, there were 177 incidents in which the Lead Auditors deemed a reportable weaponless defense technique or pointing of a firearm(s) was used and not reported and documented.

It’s not just about guns. These are a few cases the OIG highlights in its report, showing even use of less-than-deadly force went unreported despite the new policies.

1. Officers were in a foot pursuit of a subject and an officer forcefully pushed the subject, causing him to fall on the ground against a fence. The reporting officer stated in his report “no known witnesses.” OIG’s review of the associated video footage identified multiple witnesses on scene when the force in question was used.

2. Officers were attempting to place a subject in handcuffs, and the subject stood up and punched an officer in the face. Another officer wrapped his arms around the subject, physically lifting him off the ground causing them both to fall backwards onto a glass table and then lifted the subject back onto a couch.

3. A detained subject started to run from an officer, and the officer grabbed the subject by the hair and pulled him to the ground. The officer failed to articulate and document in his report that he pulled the subject by his hair.

4. During the search of a subject, the subject turned to run, and the officer grabbed him, causing them both to fall to the ground. The officer also delivered an intentional forearm strike to the subject’s right tricep area while attempting to handcuff the subject.

Cops may complain body cameras are nothing more than “gotcha” devices meant to catch them abusing people and violating their rights. The flow of these policemen’s tears would mean oh so much more if the body cameras didn’t catch them abusing people and violating their rights. So, if nothing else, the body cameras are exposing what officers hoped to cover up by not filing use of force reports.

Then there’s this: cops may argue they don’t engaged in biased policing, but the stats belie their protestations of “fair and balanced” enforcement.

There were 12 incidents involving 19 subjects in which the audit found the pointing of the firearm should have been reported as a use of force but was not. Of the 19 subjects, 17 were African American (89%) and 2 were Hispanic (11%).

So, every time a white person has a gun pointed at them by an Oakland PD officer, it gets reported. That seems a bit troublesome.

And there’s little reason to believe the ongoing use of body cameras will result in more conscientious policing. Officers apparently believe recording interactions with the public is optional.

Upon review of the associated video recordings for the 47 incidents likely to involve force in which the arrests were more probable to have involved a use of force, the lead auditors determined there were PDRD concerns in 19 incidents. However, 18 of the 19 incidents involved officers not complying with PDRD policy requirements.

Fortunately, the large number of cameras issued ensure there was at least some footage of every use of force incident. Unfortunately for officers who “forgot” to activate their cameras, other officers activated theirs, giving investigators all they needed to discover multiple violations of the PD’s body camera policies.

The Oakland PD only looks better on paper. It has barely changed at all since the institution of body cameras and use of force reporting requirements. Some cops hate accountability and many apparently view this as damage to be routed around. Until the PD steps up and starts firing people for violating policy, the practice of fudging the numbers and neglecting camera obligations will continue.

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