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Quad-City Times: Better ‘use of force’ data is needed

Ever since, and even before, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last year, the use of force by police has been a top concern for many Americans. Yet, there still are major gaps in our knowledge about how publicly-paid police officers use force.

That’s true in the Quad-Cities, too. As Emily Andersen reported recently, when this newspaper sought data for the last five years on use of force incidents from the five largest police departments in the Quad-Cities and the two county sheriff’s departments, the figures we received varied. As Andersen reported, “there isn’t a universal policy in the U.S., or even state to state, that defines what kinds of force should be tracked, or even if departments should keep records of use of force.”

As a result, departments, if they track incidents at all, do it differently.

Reformers and police executives have urged a more systematic method of reporting, and the FBI set about creating a national database in 2015. The agency then began collecting data in 2019, but the effort has been limited. It’s a voluntary database, and only a fraction of police agencies are reporting data.

Only a handful of Iowa agencies participate in the FBI’s database, though Davenport is one of them. In Illinois, just 59 agencies are submitting data, including East Moline and Moline.

If you think those are the only limitations, think again. The FBI won’t even release information until certain participation thresholds are met; and even then, according to the Washington Post, only national- and state-level data will be released.

This makes little sense. Accountability doesn’t just happen at the national or state level; it must occur in individual communities. Which means local information is vital.

This newspaper has been able to document shootings involving local police agencies, which have provided that information. But shootings aren’t the only type of force authorities employ.

Some reformers believe the way to get greater participation in the FBI’s system is by tying federal funds to it. That seems logical to us. The federal government established this database for a reason, and it doesn’t make sense not to use it.

There is a lot of controversy in the United States over the use of force by police departments, and a basic step in dealing with these issues is to have good data. Partial reporting just doesn’t cut it.

On the local level, Andersen found varying degrees of data reporting.

Given the inconsistencies and gaps in data, it’s hard to make judgments about individual departments, especially in comparison with one another. That’s unfortunate. It is important that people be able to hold their local police departments accountable – and that, in part, is done by using data to compare them with others, especially those in the surrounding area.

Frankly, we think it would be a good step for our local police agencies to take the initiative and get together to come up with their own standardized method of reporting on this issue. They cooperate on a range of other things, this could be another one.

Ultimately, though, the federal government should use its leverage to ensure police agencies across the country accurately provide information about their use of force. Then that information ought to be shared with the people so they can make their own judgments – both about how force is used nationwide, and in their own states and communities.

— Oct. 10

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