Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely.
WASHINGTON — When the Justice Department surveyed police departments nationwide in 2013, officials included for the first time a series of questions about how often officers used force.
In the year since protesters in Ferguson, Mo., set off a national discussion about policing, President Obama and his top law-enforcement officials have bemoaned the lack of clear answers to such questions.
The Justice Department survey had the potential to reveal whether officers were more likely to use force in diverse or homogeneous cities; in depressed areas or wealthy suburbs; and in cities or rural towns. Did the racial makeup of the police department matter? Did crime rates?
But when the data was issued last month, without a public announcement, the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely.
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Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not.
And many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say. That made any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.
The report’s flaws highlight a challenge for the Obama administration, which has called for better data but has no authority to demand that police departments keep track of it. Those that do keep track are under no obligation to release it.
When the Justice Department’s civil-rights investigators have scrutinized police departments and reviewed records that would not otherwise have been made public, they have found evidence of abuse.
In Seattle, investigators reviewed the police department’s reports on the use of force and found that one out of every five episodes was excessive. In Albuquerque, N.M., investigators concluded that most police shootings from 2009 to 2012 were unjustified. Such conclusions have been amplified by videos of deadly police interactions in Cincinnati and North Charleston, S.C., as well as on Staten Island, N.Y., and elsewhere.
But those investigations focus only on departments suspected of unconstitutional behavior. And police officers say the videos do not reflect the tens of millions of interactions that officers and civilians have each year. Federal estimates have concluded with “substantial confidence” that, when considered as a percentage of that overall number, officers use force very rarely.
The Obama administration is trying to enhance police training and improve relationships between officers and minorities. But without better data, it will be hard to know if those efforts are working — or even if use of force was objectively a problem in the first place.
“It’s a national embarrassment,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who often consults with the Justice Department on its studies. “Right now, all you know is what gets on YouTube.”
More than 20 years ago, Congress ordered the Justice Department to collect national data on excessive force by police. But as demonstrated by the recent survey’s inability to properly measure any use of force, that obligation has been virtually impossible to meet, in large part because of the difficulty of collecting reliable data from the nation’s roughly 18,000 state and local police departments.
Although many police departments long ago embraced sophisticated computer analysis for tracking and predicting crime patterns, they have been slower to do so when tracking police behavior. Of those departments that require officers to document their use of force, some attach the information to police reports, some have separate databases and some keep the data on paper.
Among the large police departments in the Justice Department’s survey, slightly more than half said they documented each use of force individually. About one-fifth, however, said they documented them by the number of police reports that mentioned a use of force, which means that each episode might be recorded several times by different officers. About one-fifth of departments refused to say how they kept their data.
That is useful information, as is the data on what tactics are counted in each city, said KiDeuk Kim, a researcher with the Urban Institute, which conducted the police survey for the Justice Department. He conceded, however, that “they’re less willing to talk about how many incidents they had.”
In private discussions, some police leaders told the Justice Department that they were reluctant to turn over data that the department could use to vilify them, officials said.
Alpert, the criminologist, said the federal government would need to attach an incentive, or a requirement, if it wanted to get reliable information. For instance, he suggested making federal grant money for police departments contingent on their providing standardized data.