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Police Use-of-Force Data Has Yet to Be Sufficiently Studied
Posted On April 26, 2022
Academics and global governmental units see a critical need for better policing data. As far back as 1998, in research sponsored by the Police Foundation, the University of Cambridge’s Lawrence W. Sherman argued for the use of the best available scientific evidence to guide police practice that he called “evidence-based policing.” In the 2022 book Translational Criminology in Policing, the authors of the chapter “Proclivity to Rely on Professional Experience and Evidence-Based Policing” note that “sufficient scientific evidence about ‘what works’ [in policing] is often lacking, but even if available, police may face difficulties in … drawing concrete, practical conclusions from data. …” The field of policing is still evolving; it is dealing with political, budgetary, and time constraints, “which may inhibit [police agencies’] ability to stay informed about the latest research evidence, invest in research, and implement policies and practices that were found to be effective.”

Government data is only as good as it is complete. In December 2021, an article in The Washington Post discussed how the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection database, begun in 2019, still suffers from a lack of data input from police departments across the U.S. This is considered so much of a problem that the FBI is thinking of shutting down the program. In an era of a great deal of interest and concern about policing, especially after the murder of George Floyd, how can the FBI even consider giving up? Is there really no way to require key data on such an important topic?


The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) shared information about the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, stating that the FBI’s intention was to “foster more informed conversations around use-of-force incidents and demonstrate law enforcement’s commitment to transparency, fair and impartial policing, and community trust.” From the start, the data collection for the database was limited. The IACP notes that not all uses of force can be reported to the database. The cases in which police use of force is reportable are when that use of force causes:

  • the death of a person,
  • the serious bodily injury of a person, or
  • the discharge of a firearm at or in the direction of a person that did not otherwise result in death or serious bodily injury.

A recent headline in The Washington Post states, “For a second year, most U.S. police departments decline to share information on their use of force” with the National Use-of-Force Data Collection. In 2021, when that article was published, the participation rate was “only 27 percent of local and federal agencies.” According to a Government Accountability Office report from December 2021, “Due to insufficient participation from law enforcement agencies, the FBI faces risks that it may not meet the participation thresholds established [by the Office of Management and Budget] and therefore may never publish use-of-force incident data from the collection.”


A 2022 assessment from Everytown Research & Policy reports that “10 best-in-class state policies require state law enforcement agencies to collect data on all incidents in which officers use force against civilians and to report that data to the state—which must then publicly release state-wide and agency-specific data. Other states have policies on this topic that are incomplete, either requiring collection without reporting or publication or only requiring agencies to collect data on ‘serious’ or lethal force.”

A May 2021 article in Telematics and Informatics notes, “The commitment to open data is not uniform across local governments,” and in the area of police use of force, this is a clear understatement. Research from University of Chicago Law School, published in 2021, states, “Transparency is necessary to allow the public to evaluate how well existing policies and systems are working. Data and information provided by governments on law enforcement use of force is extremely scarce in most, if not all, jurisdictions. Few police departments are required to publish data on the use of force.”

It’s not just a problem in the U.S. In a January 2022 article in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, researchers urged their government to create a national use-of-force database to “enhance police transparency and accountability, while also increasing our understanding of when and why force is used and what strategies may be useful for reducing inappropriate applications of force.” They note, “Concerns surrounding the use of force by police officers appear to be growing, fuelled by perceptions that the police use force too frequently.” Research shows “that force is applied disproportionately to members of certain groups, and the view [is] held by some that the mechanisms for holding police responsible for unjustified force are inadequate.” The challenges of this proposal include “mandating nationwide participation, overcoming resistance from the police community, establishing sensible case inclusion criteria, and standardizing data collection. While these are significant challenges, [the authors] believe not only that they are possible to overcome but that doing so will provide real value to Canadian society.”


The Police Public Contact Survey, done periodically from 1996 to 2018 and currently collecting data for 2022, claims to be “the only national collection on police contact from the perspective of residents; the only national data collection that measures the full scope of nonlethal force used by police; the only national data collection that collects measures of police legitimacy; the only national data collection that can be used to assess racial disparities in contact with police and outcomes of contact with police; and the only data collection that can provide national estimates of the rate of searches during traffic stops and the prevalence of stop and frisk practices.”

The Washington Post maintains an independent Fatal Force database that attempts to fill the gap. Its data finds that 7,291 individuals have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. The database tracks details about each death—the victim’s race, the circumstances of the shooting, whether the victim was armed, and whether the victim was experiencing a mental health crisis—drawing on other databases such as Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters.


“The police are widely recognized as both a key input into public safety … and a potential driver or mitigant of social inequality at a population level …, with significant implications for the wellbeing of individuals and communities,” according to a December 2021 research paper.  “Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of police in society, however, is their authority to use physical force, even injurious or lethal force, against civilians.” Better documentation and availability of data are necessary if we are ever going to solve this problem.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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