If you’ve watched TV, read a newspaper, or used the internet in the last several years, you may have noticed lots of police departments embroiled in violent misconduct scandals—a surefire sign that loads of cops are far too quick to unholster their weapon or put someone in a headlock.
In 2019, the FBI launched an effort to track these kinds of incidents via the National Use-of-Force Data Collection program, a large database set up to catalog use-of-force trends in police departments across the country. However, according to a new report from the federal Government Accountability Office, that database might have to shut down soon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not enough departments are submitting data.
The FBI’s program, which is voluntary, asks federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to submit information to the government on “any incident in which a law enforcement officer discharges a firearm at or in the direction of a person, or which results in death or serious bodily injury.” However, the GAO’s report, published Tuesday and first reported on by the Washington Post, shows that the program hasn’t yet been able to meet the reporting thresholds laid out by the Office of Management and Budget.
To stay operational, the database is required to meet a 60 percent participation rate nationally—something it’s gotten close to but still ultimately hasn’t met. If it can’t meet that goal, the project will likely be terminated as soon as next year, the GAO report states.
“After 2 full years of data collection, the FBI had achieved participation by law enforcement agencies representing 44 percent and 55 percent of officers nationwide in the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, according to FBI documentation, for calendar years 2019 and 2020, respectively,” the report states. OMB has mandated that “if the FBI did not achieve 60 percent participation by the end of 2022, the FBI was to end the data collection effort and explore alternatives for collecting law enforcement use of force data,” the report continues.
The reason for a 60 percent participation rate is related to data quality, the report states, and a high response rate is “an important indicator of data quality.” In other words, the database can’t be considered an authoritative look at police abuse because there isn’t enough data, and there isn’t enough data because police aren’t particularly thrilled about shining a light on their own abusive actions.
As of Wednesday, the bureau had apparently reached a 57 percent participation rate—which, hey, sounds pretty good, actually! Just get a couple more departments involved and we’re in business.
Yet even if the bureau meets its participation threshold, it’s not totally clear that the data will ultimately be that useful in giving us an overview on which departments are particularly violent, or why certain officers may stray outside the bounds of sanctioned policy. That’s because, as the FBI’s website openly states, the database “does not assess or report whether officers followed their department’s policy or acted lawfully” and the GAO report further clarifies that “according to FBI documentation, the National Use-of-Force Data Collection does not differentiate between incidents involving reasonable force and incidents involving excessive force.”
So, the data will merely reflect where use-of-force was applied, and while that might be useful in more comprehensive analyses of police interactions with the population, it probably won’t provide any stark insights as to why, every time we turn around, we have to click on CNN to hear about another unfortunate incident.