The Spokane Police Department announced Wednesday that it has become one of 16 agencies throughout the state of Washington to start providing data to the FBI as part of a nationwide effort to build a database of information tracking officers’ serious use of force.
The announcement to join the National Use-of-Force Data Collection program comes on the heels of a number of high-profile cases of use of force throughout the nation and the announcement this week that a Spokane police officer who fired his weapon in a July 6 incident had been involved in at least four other police shootings dating back to 2003, three of which ended in fatalities.
Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said the effort has been underway since January.
“Even before the recent shooting, I said this is something we wanted to look at,” Meidl said. “We say, ‘Trust us.’ People want to know what the data is and why the data is what it is. It gives us an opportunity to have another dialogue and talk about the uses of force that are happening locally and nationally.”
The FBI for decades has compiled the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which tracks the number of reported crimes in virtually every city in the country. It allows decision-makers and police officials to track trends in crime to assist in making decisions about the number of officers to employ and other public-safety issues.
Meidl said government officials years ago started talking about doing the same thing for serious use-of-force incidents.
“When we wanted to study use-of-deadly-force trends and patterns and areas for training and improvement; there is no one-stop location,” he said. “You have to go to each individual state, if you are lucky, or each individual department.”
Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said she supports Meidl’s decision to join the FBI’s data collection effort.
“We just had, at our last public safety meeting, a presentation on use of force,” Kinnear said. “So, the council is very tuned into the police department’s use of force. That’s very much a concern among council members, because it’s something that’s being talked about nationwide.”
For those agencies willing to share their data, the FBI will catalog incidents whenever someone who has contact with officers or deputies suffers a serious injury or is is killed or when officers fire their weapons at a suspect during law-enforcement actions.
“Law enforcement use of force has long been a topic of national discussion, but a number of high-profile cases involving law enforcement use of force have heightened awareness of these incidents in recent years,” according to the program’s website. “However, the opportunity to analyze information related to use-of-force incidents and to have an informed dialogue is hindered by the lack of nationwide statistics.”
Meidl, who also serves as president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the only drawback is that not enough agencies are volunteering to provide the data.
“We need at least 40% to be comfortable to use the data we are going to get,” Meidl said. “It’s slowly growing. Communities now expect their agencies to be transparent. This is one more effort to be transparent with our data to voluntarily take part in this program.”
In addition to the Spokane Police Department, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office began providing its serious use-of-force incidents to the program in January, Cpl. Mark Gregory said.
Kinnear said she didn’t want to speak for the entire council but that she supports the effort to track Spokane’s critical incidents to make sure department leaders are using best practices and trying to mitigate use of force.
“For me, since the Otto Zehm incident, we’ve become acutely aware of our uses of force that play out in the media,” she said.
Zehm, 36, died on March 20, 2006, after suffering several baton strikes to the head and shocks with a Taser during a confrontation with Spokane police even though it turned out Zehm had committed no crime. The city eventually settled a civil suit for $1.67 million, and a Yakima jury convicted former Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in 2011 of using excessive force and lying to investigators.
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