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We actually know very little about police brutality

Despite having militarized police departments across the country, the federal government does not collect comprehensive data that encompasses all kinds police violence.

On Nov. 16, a woman is silhouetted as she takes in the faces in the photographs that make up the "Say Their Names" memorial on Boston Common. According to its website, "The Say Their Names Memorial is a nationwide initiative to honor Black lives lost to racial injustice, police brutality, and racism."Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When it comes to the problem of police brutality, Americans know that Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed. They know that police officers routinely abuse their power, and they know, tragically, that police kill nearly 1,000 Americans each year.

But what Americans don’t know — or can’t know — is just how prevalent police violence is in everyday life because, despite having militarized police departments across the country, the federal government does not collect comprehensive data that encompasses all kinds of instances of use of force.

The most accurate data on police violence that Americans have access to are incidents of fatal police shootings — the result of a combination of efforts from journalists, watchdog groups, and the federal government, which has more rigorously tracked police killings within the last decade. (That’s why we now know that police, on average, fatally shoot about three Americans every day.) But nonfatal use of force is poorly documented.

“We know scandalously little about the dimensions of police violence in the United States,” said David Alan Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School, said in an interview. Though the FBI created a database on “use of force” in 2019, only 40 percent of police departments in the country participated, because reporting their stats is voluntary.


The problem with this lack of data is that while lawmakers focus on deadly force by police, the less visible reality of nonfatal police aggression continues to receive less scrutiny. Police departments report instances of use of force in wildly different ways because there’s no standard definition. What some departments might consider a violent arrest, others would not even bother to report. “The way the data is collected with no standard, with no place it has to be reported into, it really obscures the problem,” said Bree Spencer, senior manager of the policing program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It serves this purpose to hide what’s going on, and it’s not OK. It’s unacceptable.”


Indeed, police can act in aggressive and violent ways without anyone ever knowing other than the person on the receiving end. And that’s not necessarily because officers will cover up those incidents — though, to be sure, police do have a proclivity for cover-ups — but it’s because the law protects them by not considering many of their violent actions to actually be violent. “There are only slight differences, doctrinally, between a police officer telling me to stop and a police officer grabbing me and forcing me to the ground, or between a police officer demanding entry into my house and a police officer breaking through the window,” Sklansky wrote in his new book, “A Pattern of Violence: How the Law Classifies Crimes and What It Means for Justice.”

One reason there needs to be broader data on police violence is so that police departments can be better held accountable. And one of the strengths of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which President Biden wants to sign before the anniversary of Floyd’s murder later this month, is that it does just that by requiring law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force data that account for the race, sex, disability, religion, and age of the people police interact with. (The act also tackles police violence well beyond the scope of deadly force by creating a national police misconduct registry, for example, and by regulating police violence on a national scale by explicitly outlawing tactics like no-knock warrants and choke holds.)


Another rationale for more data is because without it, experts and lawmakers can’t determine how effective policies are that are aimed at stymieing police overreach. “It’s hard to know what measures work best when we don’t know the dimensions of the problem,” Sklansky said. That means despite states, localities, and the federal government adopting police reform measures, much of their efficacy will remain unknown because of the dearth of existing data.

It shouldn’t take someone getting killed for police departments to take steps to end their violent streaks. A comprehensive national database collecting and cataloging unjust arrests and police violence of all kinds might mean it finally won’t.

Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him @abdallah_fayyad.