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

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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.

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