Police in Pennsylvania should provide FBI with use-of-force data

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board (TNS)
Tear gas is fired at protesters on I-676 on the third day of Philadelphia protests in response to the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, June 01, 2020. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

We’ve all watched enough cop shows to know that the relationship between local police forces and the feds is a tricky business. But here in the real world, with real reforms and real lives at stake, petty suspicions and rivalries can’t be allowed to get in the way of grown-up cooperation.

A Post-Gazette investigation revealed that only 1.3% of Pennsylvania’s 1,563 law enforcement agencies are participating in the FBI’s program to collect national data on police use of force against civilians. That’s the third-lowest rate in the country, ahead of only Louisiana and West Virginia.

The federal database, which is supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is meant to be a national clearinghouse for information about violent interactions with police. It includes all incidents in which officers kill or seriously injure someone, or fire their guns at all. The purpose is to fill a frustrating gap in national data for researchers and other law enforcement experts: Right now, private organizations have to sift through reams of local reports to create the closest thing we have to national data about police violence.

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We agree with local civil rights attorney Timothy O’Brien: There is “no reasonable excuse” for Pennsylvania’s paltry level of participation in the FBI database. In fact, it raises the suspicion that law enforcement agencies are intentionally sabotaging a project that would shine an unwelcome light on their practices.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton implied that suspicion of feds’ meddling is what has motivated his force’s non-participation. It “puts you in a corner,” he said, where federal agencies will be making demands that struggling local forces can’t afford to accommodate.

This doesn’t cut it. While we would urge the FBI to make reporting use-of-force data as seamless as possible, especially for smaller agencies, police forces can and should make collecting and sharing this data a top priority. It should be considered a core part of their duty to the public, not extra credit work.

And so we’re impressed by the few Allegheny County law enforcement agencies that have cooperated without complaint, including the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Castle Shannon police Chief Kevin Truver, whose department also participates in the FBI project, believes that transparency will be good for cops all-around, dispelling the growing perception that use of force is commonplace. We hope he’s right, but even if he isn’t and the database reveals what many suspect — an alarmingly high rate of violent police-civilian interactions — that clarity would still be for the best for officers and citizens alike. The better data we have, the better decisions we can make about how to undertake the necessary work of law enforcement in a peaceable and equitable way.

Ultimately, reporting this basic information to state and federal agencies should be mandatory for local police forces to receive state and federal funding. This is what the Pennsylvania State Police will begin enforcing in 2023 at the state level, and we urge Congress to direct the FBI to do the same at the federal level. If law enforcement leaders can’t get over their mutual suspicions for the good of all of us, then they should be penalized until they can.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board (TNS).