Today, the R Street Institute released a new report that explores the complexity of police use of force. Co-authored by Logan Seacrest, a resident fellow for the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties program, and Jillian Snider, the program’s policy director and a retired New York Police Department officer, the report acknowledges that mistrust of police is at an all-time high, driven by perceptions that force is routinely misapplied and officers are seldom held accountable. These viewpoints are sustained by a lack of official, robust government statistics.

While most interactions between police and community members are peaceful and officers use force in only a small percentage of encounters, the lack of data transparency makes it difficult to determine how often police cross the line from reasonable to excessive force. In fact, even appropriate uses of force can be misconstrued, leading to increased tensions between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Few other areas in public policy have such a wide delta between public discourse and available facts.

To bridge that gap, the authors chronicle the history of data-collection efforts and give a comprehensive description of the current information and legislative landscape, as well as real-world examples of innovative use-of-force data systems that could be adopted more widely. They also offer recommendations that would help law enforcement leaders and policymakers design use-of-force data systems and craft practical, evidence-based transparency laws.

As Seacrest and Snider conclude, “Despite the decline in official use-of-force numbers, fewer Americans than ever before are confident that police try to avoid excessive force. Social media can trigger cognitive biases that make it seem like disturbing police violence is the norm, even if that is not true statistically. Embracing data transparency and open communication can help law enforcement counter this narrative.”

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Police Use of Force

Policymakers and police executives need to know how police are currently using force, how regulations shape behavior, and how training and culture influence officer decision making.