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Use-of-force data will improve policing

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The death of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick in Washington is a painful reminder that the civil unrest and anti-police sentiment that gripped American cities for much of 2020 are not behind us. Cities may no longer be burning, but police departments are still facing a serious crisis of confidence — with fatal consequences.

It’s time for policymakers to take action. In Arizona, legislators should prioritize policies that will strengthen the public’s trust in police without degrading the men and women in uniform who protect our communities. Arizonans want to trust their local police, but sensational national media narratives have made too many of them question the integrity of their neighbors in blue. Policies that improve transparency within police departments allow the public and officials to see how their local officers are actually performing, not just how the media says they are.

For all of the media attention paid to police brutality, it may surprise you that there is actually scarce data on how often and in what circumstances police use force. Even though there has been broad bipartisan support for collecting police use-of-force data for decades, Americans are still largely in the dark. 

Only four states require their police departments to report use-of-force data to a publicly accessible database. Some departments in the remaining states voluntarily report data, but most do not. Of the 18,000 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in the U.S., only 5,043 reported data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection in 2019. Here in Arizona, departments in only four of the ten largest cities contribute their data, and not a single sheriff’s office participates.

But low participation should not be taken as an indicator of departments’ reluctance to share data. Local departments have reasonable concerns about the sufficiency of the national database. Phoenix, for example, opted out of the FBI’s data collection because its department was in the process of rolling out its own local database. Phoenix’s decision was partially justified: one major shortcoming of the FBI’s database is that it releases data in national summaries, with no agency-level reporting. But national summaries simply don’t have the specificity required to get meaningful information about local departments. Local data is crucial to determining which departments have recurring problems with use-of-force, and which departments are being unfairly tarnished. 

Walt Blackman

Walt Blackman

Even with its shortcomings, the National Use-of-Force Data Collection is still a worthwhile endeavor. The International Association of Chiefs of Police is a firm supporter of the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, citing its potential to positively impact national media coverage of police. Standardized, national use-of-force data would offer the public useful context about policing in America, as long as the public also has access to specific data about the departments in its communities

Arizona should take this issue head-on. That’s why I introduced HB2168 to establish a mandatory use-of-force reporting system that sends data to both the National Use-of-Force Data Collection and to a statewide database. The statewide database would contain largely the same data as the national database — demographics, type of force, whether the subject resisted — but it would also contain data on specific agencies. Importantly, the reports would not include any personally identifying information about officers involved in use-of-force incidents. 

My colleagues in Arizona’s House of Representatives recognize the importance of this bill, which is why they overwhelmingly passed HB2168 in February. 

Police officers have endured months of disdain, disobedience, and open violence. These embarrassing actions do not reflect the attitudes of most Arizonans, or even most Americans. Even so, many folks are truly concerned about the scandals they hear about in the media. The best way to reassure those people that the police officers in their communities are upstanding is to show them irrefutable, concrete data on use-of-force. State legislators have a chance this session to get that data to the public and, more importantly, to stop the bloodshed.

Walt Blackman, a Snowflake Republican, represents Legislative District 6 in the Arizona House of Representatives. 

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