Five years after the Ferguson protests highlighted how little is known about how and when police use deadly force in this country, only a handful of police agencies in Missouri have submitted data to an FBI program designed to track police shootings.
The National Use-of-Force Data Collection gathers information on both fatal and nonfatal shootings and also records instances when officers fire their weapons but no one is struck.
Experts say collecting data on every time a law enforcement weapon is fired is essential to understanding how officers make life-and-death decisions. The data also can inform police leaders about how to better train officers, they say. But a Post-Dispatch analysis has shown that the voluntary program has been slow to catch on among regional departments since it launched in January.
The police force in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue is an exception, with police Chief Ken Andrewski touting the program for compiling a database that could prove essential for training and other purposes.
A slow start
News outlets such as The Washington Post and the Guardian began compiling their own use-of-force databases in 2015 after realizing there was no national program tracking how often police are involved in shootings. Those databases only track fatal shootings.
James Comey, then director of the FBI, said it was “unacceptable” that newspapers had become the lead sources of information on the encounters.
By 2017, the FBI launched a pilot program to collect use-of-force data, with 98 agencies volunteering to participate. Almost one-third of them came from California and Georgia. Most other states had only a handful of agencies submitting data, or none.
In Missouri, only the Kansas City Police Department participated in the pilot program. In Illinois, just two Chicago-area forces participated: the Elgin Police Department and Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
And as the first year of the system’s full implementation winds down, only 13 agencies in Missouri out of about 600 had submitted a report through Nov. 22, according to the FBI. Twenty-eight agencies in Illinois have submitted a report.
Which Missouri agencies are involved remains unknown. The FBI declined to name the agencies after multiple requests from the Post-Dispatch.
The Post-Dispatch has confirmed that in addition to Ladue, the Missouri Highway Patrol is among the 13.
The newspaper also surveyed 48 police departments across St. Louis city and county. A little more than half responded. Eleven said they are not participating in the FBI collection. Two said they would: Rock Hill and Ladue. Others said they were considering it.
The officer, Julia Crews, told investigators she thought she grabbed her Taser, but fired her gun instead. She has since been charged with assault and no longer works as an officer.
Ladue Chief Andrewski said he entered everything in the FBI data collection system that he could about the shooting. What led up to it. When it happened. Where it happened. Whether the officer was injured. Whether the suspect was injured. Whether the suspect was armed. How many shots were fired. The time of day. Details about the officer. Details about the suspect.
“This could be something beneficial because it creates a database law enforcement can go to, and it’s going to have better information because it’s answered by law enforcement,” Andrewski said. “It’s not hearsay or people putting things on social media together to create narratives. These are actual events, and I would hope everyone is entering it as accurately as possible because it could help educate not only law enforcement, but everyone of the true details of what’s going on out there.”
Outcome vs. intent
So why do so few police departments enter this data?
Many agencies told the Post-Dispatch that they plan to participate in the program eventually, including the region’s largest, the St. Louis Police Department. Officer Michelle Woodling, a department spokeswoman, said in October that the department is waiting for software that will allow it to upload information into the FBI’s use-of-force data collection system.
The second largest agency in the area, St. Louis County, submits its use-of-force data to a different program run by the Center for Policing Equity. It has done so since early 2014, police Lt. Colby Dolly said. Clayton police leaders said they, too, submit their data to the research center based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Dolly said he’s not opposed to sending the department’s data to the new FBI collection system, but just hasn’t done so yet.
Other agencies, including Florissant, told the Post-Dispatch that they were submitting use-of-force data through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting, or UCR, program — but that system doesn’t capture the details the new collection system does.
Police submit monthly crime statistics to this older system, and have done so for years. UCR reports include mostly totals for various crime categories, whereas the National Use-of-Force Data Collection captures granular details about the circumstances of these shootings.
Police shootings in which people survive are not counted by UCR statistics, nor are missed shots, which is a problem, according to David Klinger, criminologist and use-of-force expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“You can’t just count the bodies,” Klinger said. “When a police officer shoots, his or her intent is to hit whatever the target is.
“Whether they miss completely, wound the person or kill the person is, to some extent, the luck of the draw. What we want to know is how often officers exercise their prerogative to use force. The outcome is really a separate question.”
Even if departments have few or no police shootings, they should submit reports to the system, Klinger said. That way, agencies without incidents can be factored into any statistics or conclusions that come from the data, Klinger said.
But other area police departments don’t see the benefit of participating.
In Ellisville, a city of about 10,000 people in west St. Louis County, Chief Steve Lewis said the agency has “almost no” use-of-force incidents so he doesn’t believe the department is “a good candidate for this program.”
In Glendale, Chief Jeffrey Beaton said his department will look into participating in the future, though his department also has very few such incidents.
Richmond Heights, a community with few use-of-force incidents, had a fatal police shooting in late August after an officer said he saw a man with a gun inside the St. Louis Galleria mall. Firearms are not allowed in the mall. Police said the man fled and that the officer fatally shot him after the man pointed his gun at the officer.
Richmond Heights police Chief Doug Schaeffler told the Post-Dispatch his department is not participating in the FBI’s data collection program but is considering it.
For Andrewski in Ladue, it was a no-brainer.
“We try to be very transparent and I believe it’s good to build on any type of data that’s out there for us to participate in,” he said. “For us, it’s information that’s already there. We had an unfortunate mistake by our former officer, but we have nothing to hide. If it can help law enforcement as a whole, why not submit to it?”
Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.