Because No One's Making Them Do It, Maine Law Enforcment Agencies Aren't Accurately Tracking Complaints Against Officers
from the perhaps-wisely-deciding-to-avoid-taking-notes-on-a-criminal-fucking-conspiracy dept
For three decades, the DOJ and FBI have barely tried (and always failed) to collect information about use of force by the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Despite occasional promises to be more thorough and do better, the FBI has, for the most part, done nothing with this opportunity — one thrust upon it by a crime bill passed in 1994.
The biggest problem is that submission of use of force data has always been voluntary. The Department of Justice only directly oversees the FBI. Neither entity can force local agencies to provide this data. These multiple levels of failure have led to the Government Accountability Office suggesting the national use of force database be put out of its useless misery as early as this year, rather than just be another thing tax dollars are wasted on.
Local lawmakers could at least compel uniform collection and reporting of this data. They may not be able to mandate the release of this data to federal agencies, but they could at least ensure proper reporting occurs at the local level.
Mandates like this are needed. But few localities have them. This sort of accountability must be forced on local agencies. Collecting information on use of force incidents and any attendant complaints or allegations of excessive force does nothing for law enforcement agencies. So, the data collections must be compelled because there’s nothing innately compelling about collecting data that may show officers and agencies have unaddressed problems.
The lack of accountability means any collections are hit and miss. And that data set is mostly misses. Unsurprisingly, when journalists go looking for this data in hopes of quantifying local law enforcement’s generation of (and response to) citizen complaints, they come away with incomplete depictions of patterns and practices. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case is journalists discovering agencies aren’t compiling this data at all.
What’s been uncovered in Maine could likely be said about almost any other state in the Union.
A nearly year-long investigation into how Maine law enforcement agencies handle complaints against officers has uncovered widespread inconsistencies in record keeping and the public’s ability to access the information.
WMTW’s 8 Investigates team partnered with the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition to review hundreds of documents and data that were obtained.
The coalition contacted 135 Maine law enforcement agencies as part of the investigation. They were asked to provide the number of citizen complaints against officers from 2016 until now and details on any disciplinary action.
The data and documents produced, or lack thereof, made clear that although it is public information, Maine has no uniform system for tracking and maintaining the records.
Why doesn’t the state have this? Possibly because no one with any power ever thought it was necessary. Police departments — until very recently — often had the full support of elected officials. Those questioning officers’ actions were considered outliers, fringe representatives that were sure to be ejected during the next election cycle.
Law enforcement agencies also have powerful lobbyists who are capable of gutting legislation demanding more accountability and capable of tying agencies into restrictive contracts that forbid retention of information about misconduct or excessive force deployment. Police unions are one of the greatest contributors to decades of opacity and abusive behavior by law enforcement officers.
At least the head of one of Maine’s police unions seems to recognize the current state of affairs is, at the very least, problematic.
“Is that acceptable? I think we’ve got some work to do to be able to make sure that we’re a little more uniform,” said Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills.
Mills is also the president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. He offered no excuses for department heads not responding but explained how strained resources might make data requests complicated.
“They don’t all have that same data system. They don’t have that stuff at their fingertips,” Mills said.
That excuse doesn’t hold up, though. Why don’t they have this stuff at their fingertips? It would seem to be essential law enforcement data — something that can help supervisors and police officials head off problems before they become too big to handle. Data like this would show if more training is needed or if some officers should be forced to seek employment elsewhere.
It’s not there because law enforcement agencies have comforted themselves by assuming everything is ok because there’s no data that contradicts this assumption. And the assumption remains intact because agencies avoid collecting any data that might undermine it.
Now, the guy quoted in this article? The police chief who also heads the police union? He could institute these changes. He runs a union that has the power to persuade state lawmakers to mandate uniform reporting and alter union contracts that may forbid the tracking and retention of these complaints. But somehow I think he won’t. It’s one thing to recognize a problem when approached for comment. It’s quite another to actually go to war with the people you represent.