Are the feds hiding data? Analysis shows that federal agencies severely underreport use-of-force incidents

National Security by Markus Winkler is licensed under Unsplash
WASHINGTON, DC- The Department of Justice has routinely used so-called “pattern and practice” decisions to implement consent decrees on police agencies which is determined by a court to require federal oversight.

For example, the Minneapolis Police Department became subject to a consent decree after the George Floyd incident. Consent decrees usually follow serious allegations of police brutality or misconduct. Other departments under consent decrees include New Orleans, Seattle, Portland, and others. The Oakland Police Department in California was under a federal consent decree for 20 years, always seeming to somehow fall short of requirements to have the monitoring lifted.

One area where the Department of Justice appears to need improvement, however, is oversight of federal law enforcement agencies, The Intercept reports. Citing a report issued last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the outlet writes that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must accurately report data on use-of-force incidents.

“We found the data were not sufficiently reliable for the purposes of describing the number of times agency law enforcement officers used force,” the GAO wrote.

Earlier this year, the DHS modified its use-of-force policy, limiting the use of “no-knock” entries, banning "chokeholds" unless deadly physical force is authorized, and a requirement for more frequent training. Those policy changes made DHS compliant with Biden’s 2022 executive order, which mandated federal law enforcement agencies mirror use-of-force policies with Department of Justice policies. The order included a requirement for better data collection and reporting on federal agencies’ use of force.

The GAO report, commissioned by Congress last year, found that several federal agencies routinely undercounted use-of-force incidents. The report showed that four federal agencies were audited between April 2022 to July 2023: Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service.

“If officers used force multiple times during one event, the agency counted only one instance of force,” reported Gretta Goodwin, GAO director for homeland security and justice.

One example cited involved an encounter at the southern border, where Customs and Border Protection reported using force on a group of 62 suspects. That encounter was classified as a single use-of-force incident.

Moreover, the Federal Protective Service reported 36 use-of-force incidents between 2021 and 2022, while individual officers reported using force 146 times. One incident showed the Federal Protective Service counted 27 separate uses of force across 15 reports as one single incident.

“We brought this to their attention, like, ‘You’re not being transparent, and this is clearly an undercount,” Goodwin said. “We asked them to pay more attention to that and to do an actual count of the use of force.” The Intercept said they contacted DHS for comment, but none was offered. 

Katherine Hawkins, a senior legal analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, a left-leaning government watchdog group, claims Customs and Border Protection “has historically inflated data against officers to justify violence against migrants, according to previous reports in The Intercept. “This sort of sounds like the exact opposite, which is striking,” Hawkins said.

The GAO report also noted that there needs to be a plan or system in place to review or follow the use-of-force data it collects. “According to officials, they have not developed a plan because it is too early to look at trends in the use of force data,” the agency wrote.

Each federal agency has an internal review board investigating the use of force. However, the GAO report found that in 2021 and 2022, those boards found that most use-of-force incidents were compliant with agency rules.

Hawkins wasn’t surprised by those findings, complaining that the review boards were initially set up to decrease the use of force within Customs and Border Protection however, most of the time find such incidents are justified, noting there is no way to track board findings and little if any transparency on how the cases are analyzed. “I don’t have a lot of faith in the review boards,” she complained. “It’s kind of a black box.”

All four federal agencies have use-of-force guidelines compliant with the “reasonableness” standard set in the case of Graham v. Connor, a 1989 Supreme Court use-of-force case. In that decision, the high court held that claims of excessive police use of force must be judged from the perspective of a “reasonable” police officer responding to circumstances in a given incident.

Goodwin is interested in how the review boards determine whether a use of force incident falls within established policy. She further said the GAO wants to know what DHS does with the information obtained from the review boards.

“What are they learning from it? What information, what lessons learned are they taking? And is that affecting how they do the training? Is that affecting any edits or updates they make to their policy?”

Two recommendations came forth out of the GAO report. They are asking DHS to issue guidance clarifying how its agencies submit data on incidents where multiple uses of force are employed. They also recommended that the DHS secretary create and implement a plan and timeline to analyze use-of-force data.

DHS responded on July 7 with comments on the GAO report, concurring with the recommendations. The agency will create a plan to analyze data by January 2024 and complete the use-of-force data analysis in 2025. GAO will receive an updated status on the recommendations within six months, The Intercept wrote.
For corrections or revisions, click here.
The opinions reflected in this article are not necessarily the opinions of LET
Sign in to comment


Powered by LET CMS™ Comments

Get latest news delivered daily!

We will send you breaking news right to your inbox

© 2024 Law Enforcement Today, Privacy Policy