Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation considered shutting down its nationwide police use-of-force data collection operation, which documents when officers use physical force. The move would have deprived the public and elected leaders of data essential to crafting sound policy. The FBI launched the database, known as the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, in 2019. While there remains no federal mandate for participation, the FBI encouraged states to submit data in an attempt to paint an accurate picture of policing across the country.
State legislatures are now trying to salvage the project, and their efforts deserve bipartisan support. Use-of-force data increases transparency, helping identify law enforcement agencies that need improvement and those that use force prudently. With this information, police departments across the country can compare strategies and ultimately learn from one another.
In 2021, several states, including Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, saw the potential of transparent data to shift perceptions of law enforcement and passed laws that required their police agencies to submit data about use-of-force incidents to a state database and the FBI. The public can now view use-of-force data in multiple states. The Wisconsin justice department, for example, developed an easy-to-use data explorer with information such as the location, the type of force used, and whether the subject was armed. Besides giving the FBI and the public access to more use-of-force data, Wisconsin’s statewide database offers greater specificity than does the National Use-of-Force Data Collection. Wisconsin has also shown rapid expansion in agency participation over recent years. The state started out with 1.6 percent of police agencies participating in the program’s first year, but by 2020, 52 percent of agencies were volunteering their data to the FBI. Wisconsin pushed for complete engagement by mandating use-of-force reporting to both the FBI and a newly created state database in 2021. As a result, over 90 percent of agencies submitted use-of-force data by the end of that year. The state has continued this momentum, with just under full participation in the first half of 2022.
In states that have struggled to collect data, use-of-force bills are helping agencies catch up. Just 4 percent of Missouri agencies participated in the federal program from 2019 to 2021. But after passing a transparency bill in June 2021, Missouri has reached 44 percent participation in the first half of 2022. Arizona has also seen substantial growth after a similar transparency bill: from 13 percent agency participation in 2020 to 43 percent participation in 2022.
Residents, journalists, and lawmakers in states with data transparency can see how often—and in what contexts—local police officers use force. For most communities, data show that police departments have used little to no force in recent years. In Wisconsin, four agencies, at most, across the entire state have reported a use-of-force incident during any given month in the first half of 2022.
These bills represent a refreshing instance of bipartisanship in an otherwise contentious policy area. North Carolina’s state senate, closely divided along party lines, passed a transparency bill by a unanimous vote in 2021. More states should work to restore faith in law enforcement by creating such databases and making policing more accessible to public scrutiny. Transparency will allow Americans to tackle real problems in police departments—and to know when media reports about police violence are misleading.