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FBI’s tally of how often police use force has plenty of holes

Carlton Williams filed a complaint after being pepper sprayed by Boston police while working as a Legal Observer with the National Lawyers Guild during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Carlton Williams filed a complaint after being pepper sprayed by Boston police while working as a Legal Observer with the National Lawyers Guild during a Black Lives Matter protest.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

A new FBI database was supposed to provide answers on one of the most critical questions about the criminal justice system: how often do law enforcement officers use force in the line of duty?

But the much-anticipated tally, five years in the making, came up with just nine significant use-of-force incidents for all of Massachusetts last year.

That’s just a fraction of the 51 instances the Boston Police Department counted in 2019 — but only two resulted in injuries significant enough to make the FBI list. That list counts only cases where people were seriously injured or killed and doesn’t include black eyes, pepper-spray incidents, and other police uses of force that result in lesser injuries.

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And that’s not the only limitation. The FBI counts just the use-of-force incidents the police voluntarily reported. Half of Massachusetts law enforcement agencies didn’t report anything at all to the FBI.

Carlton Williams, a former Cornell University law professor from Dorchester, said many instances of police use of force are never recorded because people, especially minorities, don’t bother to complain after they encounter aggressive police.

Williams, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a formal complaint when, he said, he was pepper sprayed by Boston police during a May 31 protest. But most times, people don’t want to deal with it, he said.

“Some people are so disillusioned that they feel like the police policing the police is not a process they want to be a part of,” Williams said.

No matter, the FBI didn’t count civilian complaints anyway. The agency counted only use-of-force incidents that officers included in self-written reports — the police versions of events.

FBI officials declined to answer questions about the new database, issuing a statement on Sunday that said simply, “We do not have any additional information to provide.”

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The idea behind the National Use of Force Data Collection, begun during the Obama administration, is to provide a national picture on an issue that comes up again and again in high profile cases, from the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 to the killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

The FBI warns against using its data to rank individual jurisdictions and has a policy against it.

“Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale,” and incomplete analyses can create misleading perceptions, the FBI said online. And the database makes no distinction between the proper use of force to save lives and the excessive use that has animated the massive protest movement this summer.

The national picture isn’t any clearer. According to the FBI database, police countrywide used enough force to seriously injure or kill someone nearly 800 times in 2019, the first year for which the data is available. But barely a third of the nation’s law enforcement agencies took part — only 5,043 out of 18,514.

Further limiting the value of the FBI database is the strict definition of a use-of-force incident: if no one is seriously hurt or killed, or if a gun is not fired at someone, the case doesn’t qualify for the database.

But each state has hundreds of agencies. Each is independent; each has its own policies and definitions of what constitutes force and when to report it.

“It’s almost like we’re talking about 18,000 different professions rather than 18,000 different organizations in the same profession,” said Maria Haberfeld, a law professor who specializes in use of force at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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“There’s no use-of-force definition that is acceptable and accepted at police forces across the country,” Haberfeld said.

Just look at the police in Boston and Lynn, two cities scarcely 10 miles apart. One department has a narrow definition of what constitutes use of force, while the other’s is broader.

In Boston, police counted 51 instances of self-reported use of force for 2019. Meanwhile, Lynn, a much smaller department in a city about a seventh of Boston’s size, counted 215 use-of-force incidents for the year.

“We count everything from struggles, to compliance techniques, to display of a firearm,” said Lieutenant Michael Kmiec, of the Lynn department. “All those things are included as use of force.”

When it came time to report Lynn police’s data to the FBI, not one of their 215 incidents rose to the FBI’s standard for reporting use of force.

The FBI’s database will remain flawed as long as it remains reliant on voluntarily given information, Haberfeld said. In Massachusetts, only 223 of the state’s 444 law enforcement agencies took part and that likely did not include some of the more egregious ones.

“You have to wonder about the police departments that didn’t participate,” said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “Maybe they were embarrassed about their data.”

If citizens actively and consistently filed complaints, the use-of-force numbers would likely balloon, community activists said. But police often make it difficult or even unpleasant to do so.

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“Every single time I’ve filed [a use-of-force complaint], I’ve been met with aggressive hostility and sometimes openly yelled at,” said Williams, the former Cornell law professor.

Jamarhl Crawford, a lawyer and activist who publishes the Blackstonian website, said he has tried to counsel families and victims through the complaint process many times.

“They’re met with the full force of the system that doesn’t want to give them any information,” said Crawford, who is a member of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s new police task force.

“They look you in the eye,” he said. “And assure you, ‘We’re going to look into this.’ ”

Instead, they end up getting “total shutdown, total lockout,” he said.

A spokesman for the Boston police said he’s never fielded a complaint about the process for reporting alleged excessive force. He said people can fill out the form online if they prefer.



Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.