In the United States, there is an astounding dearth of data about violent encounters between police officers and citizens. Only 3% of the nation’s 18,000 police departments report this information to the federal government. The lack of comprehensive and timely information about police use of force is exacerbating the divide between officers and citizens. Public confidence in police has hit a 22-year low divide is only deepening. As a nation, we need to rebuild trust between police officers and citizens, a process that begins with a fair and unbiased understanding of the issue at hand that can be supported by establishing a common vocabulary and enabling police departments to be more transparent about incidences.
Why is there a lack of data? Use-of-force data collection and reporting is not mandatory at the federal level and few states have mandatory policies on the books. Recent commitments by the FBI and promising legislation such as the PRIDE Act reveal a path to change. California is leading the way with the passage of Assembly Bill 71, a law requiring police departments in the state to report every use-of-force incident that results in serious injury or death according to a common data standard. Despite these efforts, we are still years away from nationwide data standards and ubiquitous reporting.
There is growing momentum in the policing community to publish data in order to provide more representative context to use-of-force incidents. Nonetheless, police departments across the country struggle to report high quality, digital data because of the lack of data standards, kludgy software systems, and high costs. These barriers are especially high for the 85% of law enforcement agencies with fewer than 50 officers with very few IT resources.
We worked with the California DOJ to (1) establish a data standard through consultation with police departments across the state, and (2) build an online portal for police agencies to submit incident reports. The portal is called URSUS. By applying user-friendly web technologies and design paradigms, we enable officers to create incident reports quickly and accurately. The average submission takes seven minutes in URSUS, compared to one to two hours for similar paper forms. The resulting data is published openly and all of our code is open source, ensuring transparency for citizens and police departments alike.
In 2016, 782 incidents of use of force were reported using URSUS. Data collected using URSUS were released to the public in September 2017. We reported further on the results here. The public GitHub repository can be found here.