News, Policing

Department of Justice to begin collecting nationwide police use of force data


The COPS division of the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that 129 law enforcement agencies across the nation joined its Police Data Initiative. There are four North Carolina areas included. Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it plans to launch an online database early next year to begin tracking all instances of police use of force across the nation, not just incidents that lead to death.

The effort is the largest federal undertaking of its kind but not unprecedented, and comes in the wake of numerous police-involved killings in places including Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Ferguson, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; and recently in Charlotte.

“Accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “The initiatives we are announcing today are vital efforts toward increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve. In the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work alongside our local, state, tribal and federal partners to ensure that we put in place a system to collect data that is comprehensive, useful and responsive to the needs of the communities we serve.”

The FBI has already begun working with law enforcement agencies to develop the National Use of Force Data Collection program, according to Lynch. The pilot data collection program will evaluate the effectiveness of the methodology used to collect the data and the quality of the information collected. For the next 53 days, all interested parties, including law enforcement agencies, civil rights organizations and other community stakeholders, are encouraged to make comments about the current proposal, which will be considered before the program’s implementation.

The program closes a gap in the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires state and federal law enforcement to submit data to the Justice Department about civilians who died during interactions with officers or in their custody (whether resulting from use or force or some other manner of death, such as suicide or natural causes). The law allows the Attorney General to impose a financial penalty on non-compliant states, but it does not impose a similar reporting requirement for non-lethal use of force incidents.

Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Thursday that the Department of Justice’s announcement is a positive development for communities and police departments across the nation.

“This should have been happening a long time ago, and it’s good that this attorney general is taking the initiative,” she said.

Earls, who was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for two and a half years, said a lot of non-governmental entities have taken efforts to track police use of force but that it makes more sense for federal officials to keep the information and analyze it.

She added that the Coalition plans to review the National Use of Force Data Collection program proposal and may take the opportunity to make comments if necessary. She said she would like to see the data collected on an individual officer basis because department-wide statistics can mask trends in individual issues.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office also announced today that it has assumed leadership of the Police Data Initiative (PDI), a transparency project initiated by the White House in 2015. Participating PDI law enforcement agencies commit to publicly releasing at least three policing datasets, which can include data on stops and searches, uses of force, officer-involved shootings and other police actions, according to the Department of Justice.

There are currently 129 departments participating in PDI, covering more than 44 million individuals across the country, including four North Carolina areas: Chapel Hill, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Kinston and Fayatteville.

Courts & the Law, Five Questions, News, Policing

Five Questions: Jonathan Jones on police video, open records

Jonathan Jones is director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an instructor of media law, ethics and media writing at Elon University.

In the wake of last week’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police and the controversy over release of the video, we talked with Jones about the state of the law on police video, what will soon change and the reality of how public records law works.

Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition

Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition

It’s probably fair to say most people still don’t understand the massive change that’s coming to law surrounding police video on October 1. Could you tell us how it now works and what’s about to change?

Right now all documents, films and recordings dealing with public business by any North Carolina agency or government are public record. There aren’t any specific exemptions for video but there two exemptions often cited in order not to release the video  – the law enforcement and personnel exemptions.

There’s no real clarity at the moment on how far those exemptions go. They both probably apply to some police video, but they don’t cover all the video that is recorded. You’ve got a real wide variety of how local governments and agencies interpret this – some, like the city of Greensboro, absolutely believe it’s a personnel file that can’t be released without the officer’s consent. Others have not looked at it that way.

What’s changing in October is that all police video, not just body cameras but dash cameras – all police video – is being removed from the public record. If the police chief or the sheriff allows it, people who are in the video can view it. But if they don’t, people will have to go to court to see the video and they will always have to go to court to show it to the public – including newspapers and civil rights activists.

It looks like this is going to be onerous. It’s a wholesale change in how we deal with a big chunk of modern police records. And we know from the public records law that when you tell people they have to go to court to get something, fewer people do it.

Are the courts the right place for the responsibility of determining whether these things are public?

This law was shepherded by two former law enforcement officers. And you can see where they are coming from. Police chiefs didn’t want to find themselves in the position Chief Putney finds himself in down in Charlotte. They wanted to be able to say, “It’s not in my discretion to show it.”

If you put yourself in the position of the police chief, he or she is in a very tough position. If you release the video, you may be seen as not supporting your officers and not protecting them. That could harm morale.

But if you don’t release it, you run the risk of losing trust of the community.

If we’re going to take it away from the record holders, I think the courts are the logical place for the decision to be made. Every county in the state has a superior court judge who can make that decision.

But I don’t think the courts are a good place for it because it is very difficult for people to navigate these laws for themselves in court. I say that as someone who brought an open government lawsuit prior to becoming a lawyer.

Prior to moving to NC I had worked at a newspaper in Maryland and was covering a story in suburban Baltimore. It turned out a child had been molested and we were trying to get information about what had happened. I sought the records because the owner of this chain of daycares and after school programs was also the owner of a halfway house for people coming out of prison. He was letting people from his halfway house work off rent debt working at the daycare and one of these guys, who should never have been allowed to work around children, had molested one.

I had to go to court and argue my case to get the records. I lost. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I raised enough attention about it that the attorney general ordered the state agency to release the records.

Few people in any community are going to go through all of that to get the records that really should be public.

To your mind, how should it work? Who is doing it right?

A: Florida has some problems – more than 1,000 exemptions for their public records law. But when video is recorded in public, the expectation is that it’s going to be released to the public because there’s no expectation of privacy in public. When a video is recorded in your home, in a bathroom or anywhere where there would be a presumption of privacy, it’s assumed it’s going to be closed to the public.

I think that’s a much better way to handle the privacy concerns as well as the access concerns. That would cover a lot of the videos we’re talking about right now, like in Charlotte.

In the new law a line that jumped out at me is that access to a video can be denied if it might harm someone’s reputation. Isn’t that a pretty subjective criteria? Couldn’t that be read so broadly as to include harming the reputation of an officer – like one in Greensboro recently – who was found to have violated departmental standards but who has not yet faced charges?

It’s a very subjective determination. We do have, thanks to libel law, an idea of how reputations can be affected. But that’s not an easy standard to live up to.

In many ways it’s also a “get out of jail free card.” We’ve got this city councilman and he’s driving drunk and in his drunken state he says some embarrassing things that would harm his reputation. Should that be protected?

And the overwhelming majority of our officers are fantastic. But we do have officers who aren’t doing the right thing. Doesn’t the public have an interest in seeing that video?

Might we see the new law overturned? And if so, how?

A: The law, as far as I can see, is constitutional. I don’t see any challenges to this law put in place by the General Assembly being successful.

We’re going to have to live with it — and I think the folks who passed it would say give it some time.  Or we’re going to have to change it if we determine it’s not working.

I think the situation in Charlotte has highlighted the potential problems with this. And this isn’t going to be the last time.

I think the courts are concerned with how they’re going to handle this, whether they’ll get a lot of requests for video and that will suck up their time.

Often it only takes one person in a community to figure out how to do something and then they start making a lot of requests. Maybe there will be that person in Charlotte who just decides to become the person who does it for that community. Maybe there will be someone in every community who does.

But I don’t think it’s a good law, I don’t think it’s a good process. I said that to the General Assembly before they passed it. I hope that when they see this doesn’t work in the way that it was intended, we’ll see a change.


Statement from the NC Justice Center on the shootings and protests in Charlotte

Our hearts remain heavy in the wake of the shootings and protests in our state one week ago. There are still many things we don’t know about the tragic events in Charlotte. What we do know is that — regardless of specifics — the deaths of Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Tyre King, and countless others are too often a consequence of systemic racism, which results in racial disparities and inequities that frequently lead to communities of color being policed differently and denied both due process of law and full protections of the legal system.

At the NC Justice Center, we are committed to justice for all people in our state. Acknowledgment of the existence of community inequities and difference in treatment for people of color – not just in the criminal justice system – is the first step to reducing those racial inequities, whether they are in:

    • Education, where a disproportionate number of African-American children face expulsion and attend high-poverty schools;
    • Housing, whether it be historic redlining, segregated public housing, or other discriminatory practices;
    • Our economy, wherein an African-American male with an associate’s degree has around the same chance of getting a job as a white male with just a high school diploma;
    • Health, as people of color are more likely to go without health care due to cost and face higher uninsured rates;
    • And, indeed, North Carolina’s own criminal justice system where African-American men compose more than 50 percent of the state’s prison population.

Conversations about inequities are difficult and complicated, but that’s exactly why we need to have them. Allowing these destructive and divisive disparities to continue, as well as any discriminatory systems that encourage or condone these continued inequities, erodes public trust. That is why we feel it is important for us, and like-minded organizations, to use our voice and our resources to combat racial injustice and lift up equitable policies in our state.

News, Policing

Allen Johnson on respecting police – but holding them accountable

Greensboro has had its share of high profile police problems, going all the way back to the handling of the 1979 Klan/Nazi shootings.

More recently they’ve been taking steps to address racial disparities in policing in the city featured in a front page New York Times story and struggling to address police body camera footage and how it is accessed by the public.

This week the News & Record’s Allen Johnson penned a column about the problems law enforcement officers in Greensboro and Guilford County – and indeed, all over the country – face. But it’s also a column about what we expect – and should expect – from law enforcement.

From the piece:

Dear Greensboro Police Department and Guilford County Sheriff’s Office:

I just wanted to take a moment to share my deep appreciation for what you do.

We ask a lot of you for too little pay and lousy hours. We expect you to protect, serve, mediate, baby-sit and counsel.

Into that mix we dump an assortment of other problems and issues: drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, negligent parenting, guns, gangs, poverty, racial tension … you name it.

We broke it, we don’t fix it and we leave it to you to deal with day in and out. We want you to be fluent in your contact with a public that represents more than 100 cultures and languages. And we expect you to smile while you do it.

You put your lives on the line for us every day, and in return we scrutinize your every move and question your integrity.

We expect you to be like cops in the movies, who fly through the air in slow motion while firing handguns to a heavy metal sound track and hitting every target.

What you do is challenging, stressful, unpredictable and unforgiving. I may not fully understand what it’s like, but I get it.

That said, I also need you to know that you must be held accountable. You are authorized to protect lives and to take them. That’s an enormous amount of power.

The full piece is well worth a read.