The cornerstone of modern crime-fighting is the meticulous collection and analysis of data. Beginning in New York in the 1990s, then later in Los Angeles and other cities, data-based initiatives like CompStat allowed police agencies to better identify crime trends and respond quickly with teams of officers assigned to the trouble spots. The same numbers are used to evaluate law enforcement personnel and policies.
So it is baffling that such data-oriented police agencies have been collectively unable to provide reliable nationwide data on uses of force. It is especially frustrating at a time when high-profile police shootings, many of them of unarmed African American men, have elevated questions about racial bias in law enforcement and other institutions of government. Without numbers it is impossible to know whether uses of force are rising and whether police in any given city are unfairly targeting any group.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s national use-of-force database, announced Thursday by Atty. Gen. Loretta E. Lynch and due to be launched early next year, will help. Police agencies are already required to report deadly encounters. The new initiative requires them to report non-lethal uses of force as well. If done properly, the Justice Department’s effort will harmonize the many different ways in which the nation’s approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies define and describe uses of force. California is ahead of the curve in that it already collects and publishes public safety data, and recently began publishing use of force data.
Unfortunately, the numbers mean little and cannot be analyzed if police agencies don’t get them right. A recent study by Texas State University in San Marcos researchers showed that police in California failed to report 440, or 30%, of deadly police shootings from 2005 to 2015. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department accounted for 34 of the missing reports. The Los Angeles Police Department accounted for an additional 21. State law provides no penalty for failing to report.
So the frustration remains — even large, sophisticated police agencies that are fully invested in data analysis can be sloppy with fatal use-of-force numbers. That fact must give federal justice officials pause as they receive data on lesser incidents. Those numbers will be in some ways more important, because they can reveal attitudes and practices that pervade departments but aren’t necessarily reflected in the statistically rare cases of deadly force. As it collects numbers, the Justice Department will have to prod local agencies to abide by the high standards of data collection and reporting that many agencies already use to track crime and officer performance for their own purposes.