The federal government recently released what some hoped would be the most accurate data on how police departments resolve civilian complaints of police brutality.
Collected from nearly 4,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, the data shows fewer than 1 in 15 excessive force allegations in 2015 met the threshold for disciplinary action against the accused officer.
As of 2016, the Cooper County Sheriff’s Department did not have any body-worn cameras, car dashboard cameras or personal audio records to record officer-citizen interactions due to the costs of the hardware, video storage and disposal, ongoing maintenance and support, and obstacles associated with the transfer and storage of videos. The department reported no formal civilian complaints against sworn officers in 2015.
A GateHouse Media analysis found flaws calling into question the accuracy of the one-year snapshot, which was released in June as part of a 2016 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics about adoption of body-worn cameras. Some police departments and sheriff’s offices dispute the data, which conflicts with their own numbers. For other agencies, the survey showed no complaints of excessive force, even though their own annual reports show otherwise.
The problems underscore a more salient issue: Despite decades of credible allegations of police brutality, and a 25-year-old federal law requiring the government to collect national data on excessive force, the United States still has little or no reliable information to show for it.
“It’s a huge mess, there’s no question about it,” said Matthew Hickman, a Seattle University professor and former BJS statistician. “There’s no regulation at the national level. We’ve got 18,000 police departments and they can each do whatever the hell they want.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics would not answer questions about GateHouse Media’s findings.
“BJS is still examining the 2016 data and has no further comments,” a spokesman said.
Data collection falls flat
The U.S. Attorney General’s Office has been required by law to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and publish an annual summary of the data since 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
But the mandate came without funding, which is one reason why the federal agency has never done it.
In a response to questions, the U.S. Department of Justice cited a decades-long effort to capture various aspects of law enforcement use of force, which BJS said has partially fulfilled the requirements.
In the early 2000s, Hickman was one of two staffers in the law enforcement division of BJS. He decided it was time for the agency to start collecting the data on its own.
In 2016, the agency undertook the effort again.
But GateHouse Media’s analysis of the results indicates the data is still unreliable.
For instance, the survey shows the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina substantiated 42 out of 46 excessive-force allegations, meaning it agreed with 91% of the claims compared with a national rate of about 7%.
Gina Hawkins, who became Fayetteville’s police chief in 2017, said that someone must have incorrectly entered the information.
“I think whoever entered the data on the survey halfway read the question and entered the number that was the opposite,” Hawkins said, adding that her department is looking into resubmitting the 2015 numbers.
The department’s own records show only one allegation of excessive force, which was not sustained, a spokesman said.
The survey also shows the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, serving the Houston area, sustained 195 of 256 allegations, or 76%. Spokesman Jason Spencer said the true number is seven out of 267 allegations, or 2.6%.
Spencer said he was unable to determine the source of the numbers that appear in the federal data, but a different administration was in charge at the time.
“The bottom line,” Spencer said, “is that we believe the data in the report is extremely inaccurate.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department also disputed the numbers, which show it received 78 excessive-force allegations, all of which were pending an outcome at the time of survey. But the department said it received 282 allegations, none of which were pending. Only seven, or 2.5%, were sustained.
The Columbia Police Department and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department returned surveys.
The Columbia police report showed 41 formal complaints against officers in 2015, with 10 excessive force complaints. The survey stated that the investigation of four complaints were pending when the survey was completed, two complaints had been found to accurately portray the officer’s actions but it was deemed lawful and four were determined to be unfounded.
Those figures match the number of complaints noted in a 2016 city news release about internal affairs investigations. The release, however, did not state the number of excessive force complaints but did note that for eight of the 41 complaints, presumably those that did not involve excessive force, the allegations were sustained.
The sheriff’s department reported three complaints against deputies with no complaints of excessive force.
Of the 4,000 agencies included in the federal report, one-fourth of them did not provide data at all because they did not “formally document and store complaints,” their complaint records were not “easily retrievable” or those questions were left blank, the survey said.
Among this non-reporting group were the Los Angeles and Chicago police departments, both of which said their complaint records were not easily retrievable, even though both submit their own use-of-force reports each year.
Neither the Los Angeles or Chicago departments responded to requests for comment.
Of the other 3,000 agencies, two-thirds reported no excessive-force complaints in 2015, including police departments in San Diego and San Jose, California. Both agencies pointed to local reports that show dozens of force allegations that year.
San Diego said it wasn’t able to find a copy of the survey it submitted, but San Jose was able to obtain its copy from the DOJ, which indeed showed zeroes in the questions about excessive-force allegations.
Brian Matchett, a commander in the San Jose internal affairs unit, said the staffer who filled out the form had no recollection of doing so.
“Clearly those are not accurate numbers,” Matchett said. “I don’t know why that person wouldn’t have reached out to internal affairs for the actual numbers versus putting in zero.”
What the data tells us
The data could provide insights for the nearly 1,000 agencies whose reported numbers appear, at least on the surface, to be reliable.
For one, only about 7% of formal excessive-force allegations are sustained. While some will suspect police bias, Hickman cautions that the majority of excessive-force allegations likely don’t meet legal threshold.
“The courts and the police, how they define excessive force, are very different from the public’s understanding of what may or may not be ‘excessive,’” Hickman said.
Still, Hickman said he’s skeptical of agencies with high rates of unfounded allegations, in which they determined the incident didn’t occur or the allegation wasn’t based on facts.
The report shows that the Las Vegas Metro Police Department ruled 92% of allegations unfounded and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office in California ruled 87% unfounded.
Nationwide, around 26% of complaints are unfounded; among the rest, 34% end with exoneration and 22% are not sustained.
Las Vegas disputed the data without providing alternative numbers. San Bernardino confirmed its numbers are accurate.
“In my experience, the majority of complaints are unfounded,” sheriff’s Sgt. Jeff Allison said. “It’s almost as if the complainant will make as many allegations as possible, but they’re not based on what actually occurred.”
No national standards
The wide disparities in how complaints are resolved can be explained in part by the lack of national standards. For example, some agencies accept complaints online while others require sworn complaints in person.
Uniform definitions as to what constitutes force and excessive force still do not exist.
“Why would use of force in Seattle be defined differently than use of force in Baton Rouge?” Hickman said. “There’s no good reason for that. It should be the same.”
The FBI is trying to fix that problem with its new National Use-of-Force Data Collection program launched in January. It will cover only incidents where the officer discharged a firearm in a person’s direction, caused a death or inflicted serious bodily injury.
But with such a threshold, it’s likely that most use-of-force incidents and the outcomes of civilian complaints won’t be captured.
Fayetteville, N.C., Observer staff writer Michael Futch contributed reporting to this story.