One of the hallmarks of the modern Los Angeles Police Department is a willingness to self-critically examine police performance in the light of data. Officers who once were judged by their reputations among supervisors now are held to answer for statistics; trends that once were examined as anecdotes now are tracked and analyzed. Such use of data has been widely emulated by other departments and has helped to revolutionize and professionalize policing, not just in Los Angeles but across the country.
So it's worrisome when LAPD leaders are confronted with data that raise legitimate concerns about a trend and, rather than investigate that information, appear to dismiss it. At issue is a recent increase in the number of police shootings in Los Angeles — incidents in which officers fire their guns at suspects. The number of such incidents jumped 50% from 2010 to 2011, with a total of 63 last year. In response, Police Chief Charlie Beck blamed a concurrent increase in the number of attacks on police officers, saying that the rise in shootings was largely driven by those attacks.
A new report by the Police Commission's inspector general, Alex Bustamante, challenges that reasoning, concluding that, in fact, attacks on police officers are up in some parts of the city but down in others, and that there is no clear correlation between assaults on officers and shootings by officers.
Bustamante's report does not prove that police are misbehaving or firing wantonly. It should not be the basis for LAPD critics to imagine that the department has reverted to a more violent footing. Indeed, the vast majority of police shootings remain justified, and an increase could be explained by any number of trends in the community.
What's not acceptable, however, is for the department to ignore a potential warning sign. If police shootings are not being driven by increasing attacks on police, then the department needs to look more closely at what may be responsible. There may be simple answers or deeper troubles. Either way, the data supply an incentive to look further, and to report those findings to the commission and the public.
Not all the lessons of effective policing are to be found in rigorous examination of statistics, but the LAPD has learned well that data offer a useful starting point for inquiry. Using the information effectively requires an open mind and willingness to report trouble, not just validation.