Smart use of data can help restore trust between police and citizens


The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, Dec. 22:

Inexcusably late, the FBI finally has announced plans to track violent police incidents, including shootings, that involve citizens. Better and more complete data can only help. But it shouldn’t just stop with the FBI, and it shouldn’t just be limited to counting shootings.

The current dearth of information about police use of force hurts this nation, now roiled by protests over highly publicized police shootings of young, mostly black men, and the pushback by conservatives who think there’s a “war on police.”

FBI Director James Comey has called the lack of information “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.” It is precisely that, and inexcusable in an age where more numbers are available than ever before, if only someone has the presence of mind to collect them — and if police departments can be made to give them up.

There is much to praise in the new data collection idea as well as much to be teased out in the details. The hope is to get the new reports implemented by 2017. That may be too optimistic, according to criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

But it’s a start at doing something long overdue and desperately needed, something that was recommended by the President’s Commission on 21st Century Policing and the Ferguson Commission. Rosenfeld is encouraged that Comey is committed to corralling the needed data.

While he’s at it, Comey should take a look at a data-set compiled by Chicago’sInvisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project. The institute, over the objections of the Chicago Police Department and city officials, used lawsuits and open-records requests to compile a complete five-year record of citizen complaints against police officers — everything from First Amendment violations to excessive use of force.

It has long been suspected that most complaints against police are generated by a relative handful of officers. Until now, there have been no data to prove this so-called “bad apple” theory. But the Chicago study strongly suggests that somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of all cops do their jobs fairly. Repeat offenders make up a small fraction of the 12,000-plus officers on the force.

An analysis by the data-journalism website 538.com of 28,588 complaints lodged against 7,758 officers found that more than half the officers received less than one complaint each year. Thirty percent of the complaints were made against 10 percent of the officers. Ten individual officers averaged 23.4 complaints a year. Regardless of what kind of neighborhood a repeat offender is patrolling, he is likely to have continued problems.

The Chicago findings are an invitation for police departments to double-down on their own housecleaning. A few cops are causing not only too many citizen complaints, but public relations and financial nightmares. Chicago has paid out a half-billion dollars in police misconduct settlements in the last decade.

Chicago has a strong police union. Cops know who the guys are who have a problem, but the “Blue Wall” culture protects them. Opening up discipline records to public scrutiny would make the jobs of the 90 to 99 percent of the force who are good officers a whole lot easier.

The FBI’s new data collection effort won’t dive that deep. But it will, for the first time, track any incident in which an officer causes serious injury or death to civilians, including through the use of stun guns, pepper spray and even fists and feet.

To be most helpful, the information collected should include at least the location of incidents; the race, ethnicity, age and gender of the officer and citizen involved; the details of the encounter including weapons involved; and the type of force used in each situation.

The aim is to use the data to improve police training, amend policies where needed and begin to repair a civil justice system that is rife with suspicion and anger, borne especially by minorities based on historical mistreatment. Done right, the data will help clear the record for good cops facing dangerous encounters and expose those who act improperly.

Yet two concerns cloud the effort. First, the federal government cannot easily process data from 18,000 law enforcement agencies. In fact, most states (except Texas) now gather reports from individual agencies. Many lack specifics.

The second concern is that local and state agencies under current law don’t have to cooperate and submit reports. Right now, only 3 percent of the 18,000 do so.

Congress can and should mandate reporting, as it has done with prison sexual abuse case reporting. It has chosen not to do so for violent encounters involving law enforcement, but public pressure might have reached the crescendo necessary to prompt legislation. As we have suggested before, nearly every police agency depends on federal grants. A “no data, no money” policy would ensure compliance.

A 35-member advisory board of police chiefs and representatives of police organizations from across the country supports the new FBI data-collection effort. The proposal goes next to the FBI’s legal offices for review and then to Comey for his signature.

Without complete data it is impossible to know how well officers serve the people they have sworn to protect, or to understand the risks that officers face. The public, the law enforcement and the nation deserve to know much more.

Lives are on the line, those of citizens and police. Too many have died, citizens and cops alike, to not look deeper into the facts. Accurate data is the necessary first step.

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(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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