A 2013 U.S. Justice Department survey of police departments included questions about how often officers used force. The New York Times says the survey had the potential to show whether officers were more likely to use force in diverse or homogeneous cities, in depressed areas or wealthy suburbs, and in cities or rural towns, or whether the racial makeup of the police department or crime rates matter. When the data were issued last month, they were almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely. Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted uses of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not. Many departments said they did not know how many times officers had used force or refused to say. The report's flaws highlight a challenge for the Obama administration, which wants better data but has no authority to demand that police track it. Those that do keep track are under no obligation to release it.
“It's a national embarrassment,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist. “Right now, all you know is what gets on YouTube.” More than 20 years ago, Congress ordered the Justice Department to collect national data on excessive force by police. As demonstrated by the recent survey's inability to measure any use of force, that obligation has been virtually impossible to meet, in large part because of the difficulty of collecting reliable data from the nation's 18,000 state and local police departments. Among the large police departments in the Justice Department's survey, slightly more than half said they documented each use of force individually. About one-fifth said they documented them by the number of police reports that mentioned a use of force, which means that each episode might be recorded several times by different officers. About one-fifth of departments refused to say how they kept their data. Some police leaders told the Justice Department they were reluctant to turn over data that the department could use to vilify them, officials said.