Police Use Of Force Data Remains A Mess And The FBI's Involvement Isn't Making Anything Any Better

from the no-one-really-knows-and-those-that-might-now-don't-really-care dept

Trust me, it all goes downhill very fast from the opening statement.

The federal government recently released what some hoped would be the most accurate data on how police departments resolve civilian complaints of police brutality.

“Civilians” were really the only ones holding onto this hope. The FBI — which has failed for years to collect reliable data on police shootings — certainly isn’t hoping it will ever compile a definitive dataset on cops killing citizens.

The law enforcement agencies who were voluntold to send in this data aren’t hoping that, at some point in the distant future, they’ll provide enough info that citizens can make informed decisions about their protectors/servants level of trigger-happiness.

Since no one with any power is truly interested in accurate data, it falls to private parties. For everyone else, there’s the annual data dumps by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which don’t come anywhere close to telling the whole story about law enforcement use of force.

The report discussed here is the BJS’s 2016 report. Working their way backwards from the official stats to the law enforcement agencies that supplied them, the Austin Statesman has found a whole lot of significant discrepancies.

For instance, the survey shows Austin police officers received 20 excessive force complaints in 2015, but Austin police officials said they actually received 22.

And while Austin police data and the survey both show authorities determined none of the complaints that year were sustained, there were some discrepancies. The survey says three complaints were unfounded, three were exonerated and 14 were closed administratively, but Austin police said their records show two complaints were unfounded, two were exonerated and 18 were closed administratively.

That one’s a relatively minor blip, but when 4,000 law enforcement agencies are sending in bad stats, the numbers get skewed significantly. In some cases, the 4,000 participants (less than a quarter of all US law enforcement agencies) didn’t provide any stats because they simply do not “formally document and store complaints.” That was the excuse given by nearly 1,000 of the 4,000 “participating” agencies.

There are those who make it easy to under-report excessive force complaints simply by never bothering to collect this data. Then there are the 2,000 agencies who report obviously wrong numbers.

Of the other 3,000 agencies, two-thirds reported no excessive-force complaints in 2015, including police departments in San Diego and San Jose, Calif.

The San Jose internal affairs unit blamed this incredible discrepancy on the staffer who filled out the BJS form. Apparently, no corrective action was taken and the head of IA was left wondering why someone reporting complaints to the federal government might put down “0” instead of actually trying to get an accurate count. (Yeah it’s a real mystery.)

That leaves about 1,000 reports that could be considered reliable. And these reports aren’t going to make anyone believe accountability is spreading like wildfire through local law enforcement agencies. Nearly every excessive force complaint filed ends up being discarded.

[O]nly about 7% of formal excessive-force allegations are sustained.


Nationwide, around 26% of complaints are unfounded; among the rest, 34% end with exoneration and 22% are not sustained.

That’s how it stands in the numbers that possibly can be trusted. Police agencies are exonerating their officers 93% of the time. The FBI is stepping up to make this collection more complete, expanding its coverage of police shooting data to cover times where officers shot at people, wounded them, or killed them. That small expansion won’t make much difference. Most excessive force allegations don’t involve deployments of deadly force. Those that do tend to result in lawsuits, not ignored complaints. The only thing the FBI is doing here is expanding its already-unreliable dataset — one that tells an incomplete story about US policing as crafted by a few thousand unreliable narrators.

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Comments on “Police Use Of Force Data Remains A Mess And The FBI's Involvement Isn't Making Anything Any Better”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

A careful internal review has found that we are awesome

Imagine that, when police are allowed to run their own investigations on their own members, the vast majority of claims against them are found to be baseless or wrist-slap worthy at most.

If I didn’t know better I’d almost swear there was some sort of ‘conflict of interest’ in play where they’d have a vested interest in not holding themselves accountable, but I’m sure the numbers being what they are are simply reflecting how utterly flawless and law-abiding police are.

cattress (profile) says:

Typical SOP

Anyone remember the asset forfeiture database for New York (city or state, can’t remember which) where just a basic query would freeze the entire $6 million dollar system? And tracking potentially the only physical evidence of violent rape collected in a special kit proved impossible for many police departments. We’re talking about the incredibly basic process of keeping inventory, which could even be outsourced to a private company for a reasonable price, is fucked up in station after station after station.
And now we think police can and will use some sort of human resources software, or hell, enter relevant information on a spreadsheet, and manage to share that spreadsheet regularly by, say, attaching it to an email? This isn’t television folks! CSI has warped your expectations of what the cops are actually capable of.
Cops and their unions will never allow this data to be collected because they don’t ever believe they have done anything wrong to document. They want to keep pretending that that all cops are heroes doing the most dangerous job in the nation, practically for free, being unfairly maligned because of some whiney criminals and those terrorist at the ACLU.

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