Mary Sanchez

Is police brutality on the rise? We need data

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department pointed his weapon at protesters in Ferguson on Wednesday.
A member of the St. Louis County Police Department pointed his weapon at protesters in Ferguson on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Americans had spent days watching round-the-clock coverage of the escalating tensions in Ferguson, Missouri when President Obama acknowledged that we are “deeply disturbed” by the situation.

Indeed we are. Take your pick of the most dismaying elements of this horror show: The opaque and bungling way the Ferguson officials have responded to public outcry over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. The way in which protests devolved into looting and destruction. The exaggerated and wholly inappropriate show of military force — including everything from riot gear and tear gas to plastic bullets and stun grenades — by municipal police. Yes, when the sort of scenes we once associated with Belfast or Soweto are unfolding in an American city, we know there’s a problem.

And then there is the tragedy itself at the heart of the furor — or was it a crime as well? We don’t know yet.

The swift, massive outcry to the shooting is fueled by frustration, pent up anger and disgust. The perception is that African-American young men, even when they are unarmed, are being targeted by police and subjected to unnecessary force, even death. A witness account of Brown’s death fits with this narrative.

With time, an impartial and thorough investigation will help us find the truth. In the mean time, the common feeling among many, and not just African Americans, is that cases of police brutality are escalating.

But there’s a problem. There’s little evidence to judge by. No national, compulsory database exists to track instances of police use of deadly force. No one knows how many people are killed by police, justifiably or not. Nor do we know how often police wound but do not kill the citizens they are also sworn to protect.

“Police brutality” is great catchphrase for generating emotion, but coming to grips with it requires more understanding.

Some experts in recent days have tried to provide clarity.

“There is no escalation in the use of deadly force. What we are seeing is a proliferation of cell-phones and cameras,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told the Wall Street Journal.

She may be right. The Internet guarantees that incidents receive heightened attention and are spread virally in ways that didn’t exist until recently. But what about evidence? How can we know if there are more or fewer cases of police brutality?

When I contacted her later, Haberfeld added, “As far as I am aware, there is no database about deadly encounters between police and the public because given the size of our highly decentralized law enforcement, contrary to popular belief, we do not have that many incidents that would justify having such a centralized database.”

Oddly enough, way back in 1994, Congress voted to institute this kind of reporting. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act called for compiling data on the use of excessive force by police. Annual reports were envisioned, the very type of information that would provide a useful frame of reference in the current controversy.

Studies have been done of various police departments and assessments culled from media accounts of fatal shooting have been attempted. But until better data are available, we have no hope of dissuading people from the idea that police are increasingly targeting their sons, nor do we have a good starting point for holding police accountable.

The Uniform Crime Report, compiled by the FBI, has some data, but it relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement. There is also the problem of getting consistent information from department to department.

If a specific police department exhibits a “pattern or practice of conduct” that violates civil rights, the U.S. Department of Justice is authorized to hold it accountable for violating federal criminal and civil statutes, and to force policy changes.

The Justice Department ought to take a look at Ferguson’s police force. Such an inquiry could answer some of the questions about whether young black men of that city are unfairly singled out by police.

A 1996 report prepared for the Bureau of Justice Statistics was intended as a starting point for the never-gathered annual reports on excessive force. It noted, “Regardless of viewpoint, everyone agrees that excessive force has an adverse impact on relationships between police and the communities they serve, and seemingly no one would agree that ignorance on this topic is bliss.”

Yet that’s exactly where the nation is stuck.

To reach Mary Sanchez call 816-234-4752 or email or Twitter@msanchezcolumn.

Related stories from Kansas City Star