California DOJ Releases First Police Use of Force Data

Photo Credit: Matt Popovich

The California Department of Justice (DOJ) has released its first ever dataset for police use of force reporting. For the first time in US history, we now have reliable primary data about violent encounters between police and citizens. Having data-driven reporting embedded within law enforcement is an incredibly important milestone that will help our society achieve better understanding and justice in a country long-plagued by police brutality issues.

Last year, Beacon Labs built a digital tool for the California DOJ that allows law enforcement agencies in California to digitally collect, track and report use of force that results in serious bodily injury or death. The tool is named URSUS, after the bear on the California flag. URSUS is the digital replacement for a system that was entirely paper-based. Going digital allows for intelligent error checking and review capabilities that help to ensure data reliability and integrity. The digital system also allows analysis and minimizes cost for law enforcement.

Upon launch last year, the tool was made available to all 800 police departments in California. The released data is illustrative. It shows that in 2016, 832 civilians in California were involved in incidents that involved the discharge of a firearm or use of force resulting in serious bodily injury or death. Of these civilians, 531 were injured, and 157 died. Before mandatory reporting, specific data like this was unavailable. Now, this data is accessible to the public and can even be broken down to surface trends along gender, age, race and ethnicity of police and citizens.

Chart 1. Race / ethnic group of civilian involved in incidents that involved the discharge of a firearm or use of force resulting in serious bodily injury or death (URSUS 2016).

A series of high profile police shootings last year highlighted the deep need for reliable information surrounding police use of force, particularly when it comes to race. Public discussion was difficult and unproductive; we had no evidence of how many victims of excessive use of force there were as a baseline. With this new information, we can now see that 19.6% of civilians that police used force against were black, while only 6.5% of the total Californian population is black.

Understanding the gender, age, race and ethnic breakdowns of officers and civilians will help in uncovering biases. This will in turn help the DOJ responsibly report on crime statistics, and inform police departments on the specific need to provide training that eliminates biases and potential profiling. According to the Attorney General’s office, a system of reporting that keeps officers accountable will help to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Chart 2. Age group of civilian involved in incidents that involved the discharge of a firearm or use of force resulting in serious bodily injury or death (URSUS 2016).

Before URSUS was launched, only 3% of the nation’s 18,000 departments reported police use of force. Because California is still the only state to have mandated reporting of police use of force data, this number is likely still very low. Federally, there are no mandatory reporting requirements or even a unified definition of “use of force”.

The crucial next step is for other states to adopt similar reporting legislation. Beacon Lab is ready and willing to work with any Departments of Justice that want to use this tool. The web app is an open source tool, and readily available for other states to adopt.

We now have reliable public data that can be used to analyze and report upon crime and the criminal justice process in California. This is incredibly important in the process towards achieving social justice. It is now the responsibility of other states to act.

Editor’s note: This project was executed in collaboration with Bayes Impact.