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Measuring The Use Of Force May Help New York Police To Limit It


New York's police commissioner, Bill Bratton, says the department's new policy could become a national template. In fact, this kind of detailed reporting is already a favorite tool for police reformers in other cities. NPR's Martin Kaste explains why.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Whenever a police department gets in trouble with the Justice Department over excessive force, one of the first things they're told to do is to start keeping detailed records. Here's Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week explaining why.


PATRICK LYNCH: To be able to document citizen and police interactions in terms of number and in terms of type is very helpful as we look to see, what are the trends?

KASTE: But it's not just about finding trends. Merrick Bobb is a longtime consultant on police reform efforts. He says the very act of measuring use of force changes things in the department.

MERRICK BOBB: It demonstrates what's important to the brass.

KASTE: He says when police commanders are just counting arrests, then that's the priority for their officers. But if the commanders are forced to count the instances of use of force, then the officers pick up on that, and they change their behavior.

BOBB: If using force more judiciously and carefully is what is being measured, you're going to try to conform your behavior to that.

KASTE: Over the years, this technique has been used in Pittsburgh, Washington, LA and, more recently, in Seattle. Reformers say it works, but there have been some bumps along the way.

Officers complain about all the new reports they have to write. They say it takes up valuable time that they could spend on patrol. And some of them talk about de-policing. That's what they call the temptation to avoid making stops altogether just to avoid the paperwork. Merrick Bobb calls de-policing an urban myth, but in Seattle, Lisa Dugard says reformers should be more sensitive to cops' complaints.

LISA DUGARD: If that is how we are asking officers to spend the bulk of their time, obviously there are opportunity costs.

KASTE: Dugard is a public defender who co-chairs the Seattle Community Police Commission. It's a civilian oversight body. She says when Seattle first started tracking use of force a couple of years ago, it did go too far. Something as minor as a suspect complaining about tight handcuffs would set in motion a whole reporting process.

DUGARD: Full reporting - you know, detailed justification of why the force was needed. And then supervisors would have to review that documentation and any video that was available.

KASTE: Under pressure from Seattle police and the Community Police Commission, those rules were revised, and officers no longer have to do detailed reports on low-level use of force. Though those instances are still counted to catch officers with certain bad habits. Dugard says overall, measuring use of force works, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.