The criminal justice system's blind spot

Without reliable data on when, where and how often police use force reformers are working in the dark

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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