What Connecticut’s first police use-of-force report tells us, and what’s still missing
In recent years, the nationwide fervor for policing reform has produced some tangible results, including new initiatives to track how officers use force in the field.
Ten states have now passed laws requiring police to report at least some use-of-force information. Many were spurred by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, though in Connecticut, the change came earlier.
Lawmakers in 2019 passed a bill that requires the state to collect information from all law enforcement agencies about the number of times their officers subdue people by force, ranging from instances of hitting, kicking or tackling subjects in the field to using stun guns, spraying pepper spray or pointing a firearm.
With the initiative now more than two years old, the public got its first look at what those reports say last week via an analysis released by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at the University of Connecticut.
The report provides a high-level overview of some 1,200 incidents documented by 60 law enforcement agencies. But its release was also noteworthy for the level of granular detail now available to the public.
Working with records compiled by UConn, The Accountability Project published a database of all use-of-force incidents, allowing readers to drill down into what took place in each department. A search feature also allows users to investigate particular scenarios, such as use of force at educational facilities, or injuries sustained by officers and those they arrested. The raw data is also available to download and peruse.
This first release of information marks an important milestone, though it’s noteworthy also for what it doesn’t yet include. Back in 2020, soon after the process of collecting data began, serious flaws became evident to researchers at UConn. Reporting practices were inconsistent between departments. Incidents that triggered a report in one might not in another. And many departments were keeping track with paper forms, imposing a major hurdle for those tasked with collecting the data.
Many departments also missed the deadline to submit their reports. Several dozen have since collected that information and provided it to the state, though about a dozen still haven’t reported their numbers.
Ken Barone, IMRP’s associate director, said the non-compliance rate is lower than Connecticut has seen with other data reporting initiatives rolled out in recent years.
Nevertheless, the new report doesn’t mince words, calling data collection efforts thus far “inexcusably deficient” in Connecticut and nationwide.
Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said the original 2019 law wasn’t clear about which incidents to report, creating confusion for some departments. But Dryfe acknowledged that some missed the mark.
“We're all adults here,” he said. “And I certainly would expect going forward that the Police Chiefs Association is aware of our responsibilities to report this data, and I think the vast majority of us will be doing so in a timely fashion.”
Lawmakers also made important changes to standardize the process. Beginning on July 1, 2022, all police departments in Connecticut started using the same four-page, electronic reporting form. The Police Officers Standards and Training Council also specified in greater detail when an incident needs to be reported to the state.
“Future reports are going to be much easier to do because we will have much more of an apples-to-apples comparison across departments,” Barone said.
Those reports will also give researchers greater insight into how each incident progressed, illuminating how the subject reacted, and why officers chose to escalate from one type of force to the next. Departments will also be required to fill out separate forms for each officer involved in an incident, making it easier to discern the actions and perceptions of one from another.
Dryfe, the Cheshire police chief, said he looks forward to having more detailed data available. After 32 years on the job, serving two different communities, Dryfe said he believes use-of-force incidents comprise only a small percentage of contacts between police and the public, and he’s confident the numbers will bear that out.
“I think there is a perception out there … that force is used significantly more often, and at a significantly higher level, than it actually is,” he said. “So having this data not simply collected by the police, but aggregated and reported by a separate agency, I think, is only going to help educate the public about the job that we do.”