NYPD will document use-of-force incidents, but who can see the data?
October 7 2015In a major policy shift, the New York Police Department (NYPD) will now document virtually every instance a police officer uses force against a member of the public. But, aside from the department’s own annual summary, it’s unclear how much information the department will release. That data can, and should, be publicly released so it can act as a check on police conduct.
The NYPD announced this change on the same day that the department’s Inspector General released a highly critical report on the use of force within the NYPD. The report noted, among other things, that “the Department’s written use-of-force policy does little to clarify the basic question of how to define ‘force,’ leaving officers without guidance on what should be reported. [Moreover], the reporting requirements regarding force incidents are not comprehensive. In some instances, there is no obligation to document force at all.”
Previous department policy required officers to record when they used force during the course of an arrest, and any time they discharged their weapons. But, as Al Baker and J. David Goodman write in The New York Times, “no such systematic treatment was given to the far more routine episodes of force — baton blows, physical altercations, mace spraying, takedowns — that erupt in an instant on the street, drawing witnesses, complaints, and increasingly, video recorded by bystanders and officers’ own body cameras.”
The department will now introduce a new form to track use-of-force incidents, known as the Force Incident Report. That form will require police officers to detail virtually any time they use force. Within the report, officers will be required to detail what level of force was used: Level 1 for physical force or pepper spray, Level 2 for Tasers and other non-lethal weapons, and Level 3 for the use of deadly physical force. Officers will also be required to report any injuries suffered as a result of the use-of-force, similarly divided into three different levels of severity. However, as The New York Times reports, not all incidents will be captured on the Force Incident Report: “some officer actions — such as putting a person against the wall during a street stop, or drawing a weapon — will still not be counted on the new form or subsequent analysis.”
It is unclear how officers will be trained on the new policy, and how (or whether) it will be enforced. Notably, the NYPD has recent history with the underreporting of criminal justice data. As the Wall Street Journal reported, an audit performed by a federal monitor appointed to oversee changes to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy found that “some officers are conducting street stops without documenting them correctly or aren’t documenting them at all in some cases.”
While the policy change to track virtually all use-of-force incidents is a good one, it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle. The key question now is what the NYPD will do with all of the use-of-force data it collects. As The New York Times notes, the department says it plans to “make public an annual report analyzing the documented episodes.” And that’s a good first step.
But an annual report won’t necessarily mean clear, disaggregated statistics. The New York Civil Liberties Union, for example, has called for quarterly reports on use-of-force data. Releasing the data would empower academics, advocates, and the public studying the use of force, which would in turn support appropriate policy reforms.
An annual report won't necessarily mean clear, disaggregated statistics.
As the Times reports, this was “the latest effort by [Commissioner] Bratton to stay one step ahead of the numerous oversight bodies he has repeatedly said he has had to contend with.” Indeed, in the past, many police departments have only adopted strict, mandatory reporting requirements because court orders or federal consent decrees have forced them to do so. In fact, the NYPD is no stranger to such court-mandated reporting requirements: it’s bound by a court order to publicly release data on its controversial stop-and-frisk program.
By voluntarily setting the terms and conditions of their own reporting policy, the NYPD may be avoiding the possibility of being fully transparent, or of being forced more exacting — and revealing — reporting requirements. And that potentially means not releasing this critical data.
The policy change to require the documentation of virtually all use-of-force episodes, is an important one in and of itself. But the promise of the new policy — using criminal justice data as corrective for injustice — can only fully be realized if complete, appropriately redacted data is released to the public.
Cover photo by William Hoiles.