Story at a glance

  • The Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to the police use of force against Americans, especially Black Americans.
  • Without federal data collection standards, use-of-force statistics can be difficult to find, impeding efforts to improve police accountability and transparency.
  • A new open-source database collects data on use of force from law enforcement agencies in Indianapolis, New Orleans, Baltimore, Austin and Dallas.

Public information isn’t always publicly available. In the case of law enforcement, accessing data on use of force and other information can take time and money, even through the Freedom of Information Act. Now, a group of citizens is doing the work for you. 


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“For almost a decade, civil rights advocates have been pushing for a national database on police use of force to bring greater transparency and accountability to our law enforcement system,” said Lynda Garcia, senior director of the policing program at The Leadership Conference, in a statement. “Accurate data is critical to revealing the disproportionate impact police violence has on communities of color. To fix a problem, you need to know how extensive it is.”

The federal government still hasn’t established uniform data collection standards for law enforcement across the country, so Garcia and her team decided to make a database themselves, with the help of the NORC research center at the University of Chicago. It's not an easy task, considering that law enforcement agencies record use of force differently across localities and some don't record race and ethnicity information consistently. The open-source database "harmonizes'' fragmented data from local law enforcement agencies, 21,524 individual incidents involving all races of civilians and all types of use of force in five cities during 2017, 2018 and 2019. 


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The police killings of Black citizens, from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd, has brought scrutiny on law enforcement’s use of force against civilians and institutional racism. But of the five cities in the database, only Austin, Texas, captures race and ethnicity separately, forcing the database to group all Hispanic and Latino Americans together to make the information compatible with data from Indianapolis, Ind., New Orleans, La., Baltimore, Md., and Dallas, Texas.

The database accounts for just 0.71 percent of national law enforcement data and 14 percent of the campaign's goal for 2021: collecting 1,000 of 19,466 existing data sets. So they’re asking the public for help, offering a records request template and information for individuals to contact their local representatives and leaders. You can also submit data for individual agencies on a progress map, which identifies whether or not data is yet available for the locality. 


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Published on Feb 11, 2021