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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New tool offers public a way to analyze police use of force

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, shown on June 7, 2019, said Tuesday the new site “provides yet another layer of transparency while helping to illustrate the many factors and variables involved in uses of force.” Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

For several years, the city has published annual reports on the Spokane Police Department’s use of force.

Now, a new tool will make that information easier to study.

An interactive dashboard was launched Tuesday on the Office of Police Ombudsman’s website.

The dashboard allows users to sort and track data on the police department’s use of force between 2013 and 2018. It compiles 616 incidents in which police used physical force to bring a subject into compliance during that time, allowing users to analyze information such as the neighborhoods in which such incidents most frequently occur; race and other characteristics of the person police used force on; and what type of force officers used.

For example, the dashboard shows that there have been 113 incidents in which police have used force in downtown Spokane since 2013, compared with just 10 in Browne’s Addition.

Police Strategies, the Washington-based consultant that created the Police Force Analysis System, simultaneously released a summary report on the Spokane Police Department. The company’s database now includes data from 56 law enforcement agencies in seven states.

The consultant analyzed six years of department use-of-force incident reports to compile a database with 150 different fields of information.

In a news release, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl noted the department has worked to improve its understanding of use of force since its creation of the citizen Use of Force Commission in 2012.

“Since that time, we have refined our policies, increased reporting, and completed a variety of recommendations by the Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, and more,” Meidl said. “This site provides yet another layer of transparency while helping to illustrate the many factors and variables involved in uses of force.”

In its report, Police Strategies noted that six officers accounted for 18% of the force that the department used. One officer used force 53 times and a second officer used force 40 times since 2013. Both were unnamed in the report, but are identified as canine officers whose uses of force generally involved a canine bite.

In an interview, Meidl explained that the K9 unit is deployed in situations that are more likely to be result in a use of force, such as burglary in progress, domestic violence, or a report of a stolen car.

Unlike most agencies, the Spokane Police Department does not count “pulling a resistant subject’s arms back for handcuffing, the use of joint manipulation and pain compliance techniques, physical strikes, pushes and takedowns, using body weight to hold a subject to the ground and wrestling with a subject” in its use of force data if it does not result in injury to the subject.

Police Strategies’ analysis estimates that, if such cases were documented as a use of force, “there would be 300 to 400 reportable incidents each year.”

“I’m always open to discussing and exploring different options. As far as committing to that right now, it’s something I would want further discussion on,” Meidl said.

Including such instances in the data the department captures would not require approval from the Spokane Police Guild.

The Spokane Police Department requires its officers to report when it threatens the use of force by pointing a weapon at a subject, but those incidents were not included on the dashboard because the requirement is not standard among other agencies.

The department publishes a comprehensive analysis of its use of force every year. Starting in 2016, that analysis included separate breakdowns for use of force on Asian, African American, Native American and Hispanic people.

Police Ombudsman Bart Logue noted that, among many areas of data, the dashboard data will allow the community to analyze potential racial disparities in policing. According to the data, 73% of people on whom police used force over the past six years were white. The city is 85.3% white, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

To understand that racial disparity in the use of force, Meidl said “you have to look at the demographics of violent crime in your community.” In 2017, he said, African Americans accounted for about 2% of the city’s population but 16% of reported aggravated assaults, 14% of rapes, and 60% of homicides.

Meidl cited a study of fatal officer-involved shootings published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month that found racial demographics of violent crime in a county “strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot” in that county.

But those findings differ from similar studies. A 2016 review of 12 law enforcement departments by the Center for Policing Equity found that “racial disparities in police use of force persist even when controlling for racial distribution of local arrest rates.”

The number of incidents involving officer use of force has been flat for the past several years, averaging about 108 annually. Of 170 incidents that involved SPD officers in 2018, nondeadly force was used 113 times, according to the comprehensive analysis of officer use of force published earlier this year.

The dashboard is just one piece of a yearslong, overarching effort to analyze the use of force within the Spokane Police Department.

“This is an important step towards greater transparency in Spokane police practices. It will hopefully help rebuild community trust between law enforcement and our community,” said Dainen Penta, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Justice.

The Police Force Analysis System includes an internal component with additional data available to police command staff, who can use it as “part of an early warning system,” Logue said.

“They can see if there are some officers out there that have a higher propensity to use force, and maybe they can scrutinize those incidents,” Logue said.

The police department has posted redacted versions of use-of-force reports from 2013 to 2016 online, some of which exceed 100 pages.

“If you’re kind of scrolling through 100 pages of information, what’s meaningful about that?” Logue asked. “It’s hard to come up with a trend if you’re looking at 100 pages of information about a single case.”

The dashboard will continue to be updated annually. In policing, it’s hard to compile data that is updated regularly, said Luvimae Omana, an analyst in the ombudsman’s office.

“When they’re sitting down and deciding on what happened last year, (the dashboard) is a better tool than what they currently have, in terms of how they look through reports,” Omana said. “It really gives the command staff lot of options in how they want to look at data.”

For the public, the dashboard offers a tool for those interested in data on policing.

“For the people who do want to take the time to do a deep dive in a particular area of interest, it allows them that,” Omana said.

Last year, the Spokane City Council appropriated $35,000 from city reserves to fund the development of the dashboard.

The Ombudsman and the police department continue to collaborate on an effort to update its use of force policy.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Sept.5, 2019 to clarify that the Spokane Police Department documents uses of force even if they do not result in injury to the subject, but that such incidents are not included in use of force data.