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Coming soon: Data on police officers’ use of force in Connecticut

A group of protestors marched in New Haven in June, 2020 to show their solidarity in fighting for racial injustice. The protest followed the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
A group of protestors marched in New Haven in June, 2020 to show their solidarity in fighting for racial injustice. The protest followed the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Connecticut is attempting to collect more detailed information about how often police officers in the state are tackling, tasing, restraining and aiming weapons at members of the public in order to gain a better understanding of current law enforcement practices.

State officials have required police departments throughout Connecticut to report use-of-force statistics over the past two years, and some of that data is expected to be released to the public for the first time in early 2022.

“It’ll start to shed some light on general use-of-force trends in the state,” said Ken Barone, Associate Director for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at the University of Connecticut, which has been working with the state Office of Policy and Management to collect the data.

The data will provide an idea of what types of force police departments use most often, and it will also offer a glimpse into the demographics of the people who are subjected to that force, including their race and ethnicity.

The usefulness of that information, however, is likely to be limited initially because of the variety of ways that local police departments have recorded and shared data about their officers’ actions in the line of duty over the past two years.

Barone explained, for example, that some smaller departments collected information on their officers’ use of force every time they put handcuffs on someone, even if the person didn’t resist arrest. Meanwhile, larger departments had a much higher threshold for when they would report an incident to the state.

As a result, state officials are currently drafting new guidance that will instruct law enforcement agencies about how they should track and report incidents during which their officers use physical force or weapons against people.

Those changes are expected to make the data more uniform and should allow researchers, law enforcement leaders and members of the general public to more accurately compare police behavior from one department to another.

The effort to refine the data in Connecticut comes at a pivotal time as communities throughout the country continue to protest police violence and the deaths of individuals at the hands of law enforcement.

The public release of the data and the ongoing efforts to standardize the information were mandated as part of a police accountability bill that was passed by Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled legislature in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor who has repeatedly testified at the federal level about the use of force, said capturing accurate data on police practices is key to reforming the law enforcement system and preventing future cases of police brutality and unjustified killings.

“You can’t fix the problem if you don’t know what the problem is,” said Alpert, who teaches at the University of South Carolina.

Most of the public, Alpert said, actually overestimates the rate at which interactions with police end in an officer using force. And he said that is partly because there is no central source in the United States that accurately tracks that type of information.

But once Connecticut’s police departments begin using the updated reporting guidance, the state will have one of the most robust tracking systems in the country, according to Barone.

“I don’t know how many states universally collect use of force data, but I do not think it’s very many,” he said.

Officials representing unionized police officers in Connecticut said they support the state’s efforts to compile the data, but their members are concerned about how the information will be interpreted and used once it is available to the public.

Troy Raccuia, the director of collective bargaining for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the 1,900 municipal police officers his union represents in Connecticut are worried the data might be “manipulated or misconstrued.”

The data the state is collecting, he pointed out, includes instances where officers may have been legally justified in using force, and without context, he said, the numbers could provide an inaccurate perspective about police.

“If you don’t have an understanding of what the proper use of force is, then that data could result in poor legislation or adverse actions against law enforcement officers,” he said.

Barone explained the analysis that IMRP publishes along with the data will explain the data’s shortcomings. Furthermore, one of the important components of the new standardized form that officers fill out includes information on the escalation of use-of-force incidents, which will aim to add the necessary context for understanding them.

The major concern among police unions, Raccuia said, is that state lawmakers might pass laws in response to the data that will make officers more hesitant to use force even when their lives are potentially in danger.

“I think the public has to be a little more educated on law enforcement and more supportive of our police,” he said. “They go out there and do a very difficult job 24/7.”

Alpert, the criminal justice professor, said Connecticut’s attempt to make its data more uniform from department to department is likely to drive down the number of cases where officers use force, even without follow-up legislation.

Local police departments in Connecticut, he said, will likely want to avoid standing out among their peers when they report how frequently they strike, pepper spray or fire a taser at members of their community.

The statewide data can also be used by departments to help them improve how officers respond to emergency situations.

Officials with the Connecticut State Police, which has been compiling its own use of force data for years, said the information collected from its troopers has been used to help inform and shape the training that officers receive.

Daniel Loughman, a major with the State Police’s Internal Affairs Unit, said understanding the situations that lead to officers using force enables law enforcement leaders to revise department policies or implement new training standards, if needed.

It also allows officials, he said, to identify officers who are using force more frequently than their coworkers and to evaluate whether there is an underlying problem that is causing them to rely on force more often.

Loughman said that process is known within the state police as the “Early Awareness and Intervention System.”

In general, police in the state are now used to reporting policing data and see the value in it, explained Barone. In 2012, the state began collecting data on every single traffic stop. Then, in 2015, in the earliest form of use-of-force reporting, it began collecting data on every incident involving the use of a taser.

“I think police in Connecticut in the last decade have generally understood the importance of these efforts,” Barone said.

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