National Use-of-Force Data Collection Accepting Submissions
By Pamela May McGee
In September 2015, representatives from major law enforcement agencies around the country met to discuss the need for a nationwide database to aid in analyzing use-of-force incidents. High-profile events—like the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—sparked not only protests and unrest but also important questions for police.
“The Ferguson incident highlighted that law enforcement officials do not know the number and extent of use-of-force cases across the nation,” said Vernon Keenan, retired director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). The agency’s work includes investigating all officer shootings in the state and many other types of use-of-force cases—averaging two per week. “Over the years, I have noticed some distinct patterns involved in these incidents,” said Keenan. “I firmly believe that when use-of-force cases are researched and analyzed, the information derived can be used to improve officer training and to change some of the tactics that we’re using in confrontations.”1
During the meeting, representatives chose the FBI to manage the collection. Douglas A. Middleton, retired deputy county manager for public safety, Henrico County, Virginia, and past chair of the National Use-of-Force Task Force, explained why: “The FBI already manages multiple national databases. They have the capacity to capture data and the ability to create the systems to report the data in a manner that everyone in the country should be familiar [with]. So it was a natural path to ask the FBI to take the lead.”2
Three months later, on December 3, 2015, the Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board approved a series of motions to establish a new collection of data on law enforcement use of force. The FBI Director signed the recommendation on February 9, 2016, and Keenan, Middleton, and a dozen other law enforcement representatives joined the task force formed to oversee the design of the database.
The result of the group’s efforts over the next 2 years was the National Use-of-Force Data Collection. “In order for the public to believe in what you’re doing, they need information,” explained task force member Robert Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida. “We wanted to provide a national use-of-force data collection that would provide objective data with the right data points, the right data elements, so that people could have information available to judge for themselves.”3
Task force member Gina Hawkins, chief of the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Police Department, expounded upon Gualtieri’s statement. “We are a data-driven society. Why would we not have this data for ourselves to utilize as a nation? That data enables us to evaluate our tactics, determine if we need better equipment for our use-of-force data, determine if we need any type of extra training. But more importantly, what that data really does is allow us to be transparent in the force that we use in our everyday situations.”4
After months of intensive work by the task force and FBI staff, the new National Use-of-Force Data Collection was officially launched on January 1, 2019. Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States now can contribute their use-of-force data to this collection. The voluntary data collection’s goal is not to provide insight into specific use-of-force cases, but to offer a comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved in such incidents nationwide. Data collected include dates, times, locations, and other specifics about the incidents, but does not include names of the individuals involved.
“In order for the public to believe in what you’re doing, they need information.”
–Sheriff Robert Gualtieri, Pinellas County, Florida
“We’re not talking about the average, run-of-the-mill, daily uses of force,” said Gualtieri. “We’re talking about situations that are narrowly defined. The officer’s force results in death or serious bodily injury or the officer discharges a firearm at or in the direction of a person.”5 According to Middleton, most agencies will have only a few cases to report. “The vast majority of law enforcement agencies are really not going to have that much to enter. I think there is a sense that there will be, but there isn’t,” he said.6
The task force members stressed that participation is key to making the collection effective. “The validity of the entire system and the process hinges upon accurate data,” said Middleton. “By that, I mean covering as many law enforcement agencies, nationally, that we can get to participate. Local, state, federal, college campuses—everybody. The database itself is only as good as what’s put into it, so the greater the volume of information we have, the clearer and sharper the picture we have of what’s happening with these incidents,” he said.7 Gualtieri added, “If the data pool isn’t large enough, it’s not going to tell the accurate story of what’s happening and what’s not happening. It needs to be representative.”8
To minimize financial and time burdens for agencies, the FBI developed two methods for data submission.
1) Submit through the use-of-force portal application, housed on the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal (LEEP) and maintained by the FBI. This application requires no financial investment and allows agencies and state programs to manage all aspects of their use-of-force data, including entering information, running reports, and creating charts. It also contains help videos, quick guides, and answers to frequently asked questions.
Regardless of the method an agency chooses, a use-of-force portal application account is necessary for the agency to have, at minimum, read-only access to its own data.
While most law enforcement agencies readily see the value of such a tool, there has been some resistance to the new collection. “It’s just natural,” said Middleton. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year training police officers not to trust anybody because their lives depend upon it. So there’s no reason to believe their chiefs will react any differently.”9
“Those who are concerned about this being some kind of compelled reporting—it’s not,” said Gualtieri. “When people say, ‘Are we going to have this whole burdensome report?’ It’s not burdensome at all. It’s very easy.”10
“The voluntary data collection’s goal is not to provide insight into specific use-of-force cases, but to offer a comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved in such incidents nationwide.”
Keenan pointed out the value of transparency: “When I talk to law enforcement agency heads, I explain that if they don’t participate in the national project, at some point their governing authorities and the communities they serve are going to ask them, ‘Why would you not participate in something that is very much needed and is going to be valuable to the public and the law enforcement profession? How come you’re not being transparent on this issue?’ I told them, ‘You’ve got to be prepared to answer that because it will come up at some point as this project grows.’”11
Hawkins added: “This transparency [is not always] easy. It may involve us owning up to—we could have made a better decision, we could have better policies, we could have better tactics, we could train better. So being transparent leaves us vulnerable, but being vulnerable means that we want you to trust us, because we need your support in order to work for the community. [Being] transparent is what builds the trust of the community that we work for and that we work with.”12
To participate, law enforcement agencies can gain access to LEEP by visiting https://www.cjis.gov. Additional information, including the list of data elements for the collection, is available on the National Use-of-Force Data Collection webpage at https://www.fbi.gov/useofforce. Agencies also may contact the use-of-force help desk via telephone at 304-625-9998 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“…participation is key to making the collection effective.”
Ms. McGee is a writer-editor in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division.
1 Vernon Keenan, telephone interview by author and Jennifer Kniceley Sprouse, Clarksburg, WV, February 28, 2019.
2 Doug Middleton, telephone interview by author and Jennifer Kniceley Sprouse, Clarksburg, WV, March 14, 2019.
3 Robert Gualtieri, telephone interview by author and Jennifer Kniceley Sprouse, Clarksburg, WV, March 7, 2019.
4 Gina Hawkins, interviewed in “National Use-of-Force Data Collection” (video), FBI.gov, December 21, 2016, accessed August 22, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/video-repository/national-use-of-force-data-collection/view.