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New Missouri law helps boost national effort to report when police use force

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A new law is driving a dramatic increase in the number of Missouri police departments sharing data with the FBI on officers’ use of force, reversing years of lagging participation across the state.

The FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection, launched in 2019, gathers information on fatal and nonfatal shootings and also records instances when officers fire their weapons but no one is struck.

Experts and officials say collecting this data is essential to understanding how officers make life-and-death decisions.

“We need concrete information and transparency into what’s really going on in our communities,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told criminal investigators at a conference last month in Indianapolis. “Accurate, objective data. We need the facts.”

But the strictly voluntary data-gathering effort was long bedeviled by low participation nationally, prompting a federal watchdog to warn in December that the FBI program was at risk of being discontinued because it had not reached a required 60% participation threshold. According to an FBI report released Tuesday, the bureau has finally met the goal.

So far, the data has shown that more than half of the use-of-force incidents reported by police nationwide to the FBI in 2021 resulted in serious bodily injury of a person, while about one-third resulted in death, the bureau announced Tuesday.

Missouri was among the states where participation in reporting had lagged. The metro area’s two largest police departments — St. Louis city and county — began submitting incident reports in 2020, but few others across the state had signed up. Only 36 of more than 600 agencies in Missouri submitted data in 2021, according to the FBI, a slight increase from 21 in 2020.

The low participation spurred Missouri lawmakers to include use-of-force reporting requirements in public safety reform legislation that Gov. Mike Parson signed into law last summer.

“Having law enforcement report incidents provides us information that will increase transparency and restore the public’s trust,” said Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, who sponsored the measure. “This is about building police and community relations.”

Participation has soared since the Police Use of Force Transparency Act took effect in March.

According to the FBI, 219 of Missouri’s 635 police agencies submitted use-of-force data during the first quarter of 2022, a six-fold increase over the 2021 total. Those agencies represent 62% of sworn officers in the state, compared with 41% last year.

Nationwide, Missouri now ranks 22nd in participation. Eight states are at or near 100%.

First national snapshot

Crossing a key participation threshold enabled the FBI to release its first national snapshot of police uses of force, although the statistics it released Tuesday are limited.

Among the findings:

• Most of the use-of-force incidents reported to the FBI in 2021 began with officers responding to unlawful or suspicious activities, rather than traffic stops, serving court orders, or routine patrols.

• The most common form of resistance officers encountered during these incidents was individuals not complying with verbal commands and other types of passive resistance.

• The most common type of force used in these incidents involved firearms, followed by hands, fists or feet; electronic control devices; and police dogs.

When the FBI established its National Use of Force Data Collection, the goal was not “to offer insight into single incidents,” Wray told criminal investigators last month, but “to provide a comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved in use-of-force incidents nationwide.”

The program is bound by participation requirements set by the Office of Management and Budget to ensure a standard of quality. The FBI had to collect data from agencies representing at least 60% of the nation’s estimated 860,000 law enforcement officers before it could publish a rough summary of responses.

The bureau crossed that 60% goal in February, the bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting program told the Post-Dispatch by email last week.

Reaching the next threshold, 80% participation, would enable the bureau to release aggregate data.

“We can give the public the necessary facts,” Wray said, “and, I believe, strengthen our nation’s confidence in law enforcement.”

Adding transparency

The North County Police Cooperative is one of the many agencies across Missouri that began reporting use-of-force data in March to comply with the new state law.

“I welcome anything to add transparency,” said Maj. Ron Martin, the cooperative’s assistant chief. “This line of work is tough. Statistics and data can certainly help you.”

Based in Vinita Park and serving several nearby communities, officers at the cooperative make about 900 to 1,110 arrests per year, Martin said. Less than 5% of those arrests involve any use of force.

Martin knows these figures because the cooperative internally has been tracking uses of force since 2016 as a requirement of its international accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The cooperative didn’t submit data to the FBI prior to the new state law, though.

He noted that the cooperative internally tracks a broader range of uses of force, including, for example, situations when an officer gets “hands-on” to put a suspect in handcuffs, or when an officer points a gun at someone.

The state and the FBI data collections, by contrast, focus on a limited set of the most serious circumstances: incidents where police kill someone or cause serious bodily injury, or when an officer fires a weapon at a person but nobody is struck.

North County had no such incidents in March and April, and so far has submitted only “zero reports” to the state and the FBI.

Ultimately, Martin says, tracking these incidents is important both for the public and for police. He doubts there will be much friction getting agencies to comply with the new state law.

“Policing is different in this day and age,” he said. “We want to do things that make this profession a lot better.”

State mandates

States across the U.S. began their own efforts to track police shootings in the aftermath of high-profile incidents such as the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. As of May 2020, at least 21 states had enacted laws to collect use-of-force data, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Missouri joined them in 2021 by requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to submit monthly use-of-force reports to the Missouri Highway Patrol and to the FBI’s National Use of Force Data Collection. Just under 300 agencies had requested access to a new state portal for collecting the data as of mid-April, said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Nearly 200 submitted data to the portal in the same timeframe.

FBI data indicates at least seven other states have passed mandates similar to Missouri’s, requiring police statewide to submit use-of-force data to the FBI.

Illinois is among them. Its mandate was part of a comprehensive public safety reform bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in February 2021. The law took effect in July, and participation by Illinois police agencies spiked, rising from 68 of 989 total agencies in 2020 to 294 in 2021, according to the FBI. But the percentage of officers represented dropped significantly — from 53% in 2020 to 36% in 2021 — possibly because the Chicago Police Department did not submit reports for 2021.

Williams believes Missouri’s law will result in one of the strongest state databases on uses of force in the country.

Police must provide detailed information about each use of force, Williams said, including: the reason for initial contact, demographic information of everyone involved, location of the incident, the number of officers who used force, and much more.

To be able to quantify how often officers use force, it’s essential also to track when they don’t use it. For this reason both Missouri’s state program and the FBI’s national program ask agencies with no qualifying incidents to submit a “zero report” for the month.

FBI data shows that “zero reports” make up the bulk of the submissions. Only 62 agencies nationwide submitted incident reports to the FBI for March, while nearly 4,700 submitted zero reports.

In Missouri, once enough data has been collected, Williams said, it will be analyzed to give the public a “clearer perspective” on how police use force.

Beginning next year, the Department of Public Safety must prepare annual reports of statewide and agency-specific statistics on uses of force. Beginning in 2025, it will produce analyses of trends and disparities in how force is used.

Updated June 7 to correct the date the FBI released its report.

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