‘Like Pulling Teeth’: St. Louis Police Claim They Can’t Release All Use-Of-Force Data
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department collects a lot of data on how it uses force. But it doesn’t release most of it to the public.
In response to nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black Americans, St. Louis officials promised in June to re-evaluate how city police officers use force.
But researchers say it could be hard to know whether any policy changes work because the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department makes only a sliver of its use-of-force data public. The data it releases excludes demographic information and how badly police injure people.
A researcher for the City of St. Louis last year published a report showing that police used force nearly three times as often in majority-black neighborhoods compared to majority-white neighborhoods. But the disparity could be even greater. The report noted that uses of force likely are undercounted because of the way the department gathers data and how it chooses to keep it.
The department only records publicly accessible information about use-of-force incidents when officers are injured. And it exclusively stores most use-of-force information, such as the race of a person injured or whether that person died, in files that police representatives argue are exempt from public records requests.
St. Louis police did start collecting more complete data after working with the city researcher in 2018, according to an emailed statement from the department's public records unit. But when St. Louis Public Radio asked what those records include and when they would become available, the department did not respond. Department leadership declined multiple requests for interviews. St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards also declined to be interviewed for this story.
“It sounds to me like the St. Louis police department is intentionally avoiding the question of whether or not they are using excessive force excessively. ... They could easily make this data public. They are choosing not to."
That lack of response is concerning, said Roy L. Austin Jr., an attorney who specializes in criminal justice and police reform and worked with President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“It sounds to me like the St. Louis police department is intentionally avoiding the question of whether or not they are using excessive force excessively,” Austin said. “They could easily make this data public. They are choosing not to.”
Use-of-force data is not hard to collect or publicize even in cities much larger than St. Louis, Austin said. Some departments now release it regularly. That data is crucial to understanding what officers are doing in the communities they police. Without it, Austin said it’s impossible for public safety leadership to make meaningful reforms.
“If you have garbage data on the front end, then you're going to have garbage reforms on the back end,” he said.
A long-known problem
The Ferguson Commission in 2015 called for Missouri to create a statewide database that could collect better use-of-force data. It would have tracked when and how police officers use force, as well as recorded complaints against officers who use excessive force. But the state has not yet created that database.
St. Louis’ department does collect extensive data about use-of-force incidents. But the publicly available data is incomplete and undercounts the times that police used force, said Cristina Garmendia, a former researcher and policy adviser for the city who worked with the data.
The city tasked Garmendia with examining racial equity in St. Louis. She attempted to analyze the existing data, but it didn't give a full picture, she said.
The department did not provide the race of the people officers used force against, how someone was injured, whether anyone died, whether officers knew the person had a mental health condition, or whether an officer fired their gun — all standard data that the FBI now asks departments to provide annually.
The limited data she did receive was only for incidents in which officers were also injured.
“If it’s from a database that’s centered on police officer injury, then it’s going to be an underestimate of use of force because police officers don’t always get injured,” she said. “It is an underestimate of total use of force in the community.”
Despite that, she found a large disparity. Among 899 incidents in 2016, police used force three times as often in majority-black neighborhoods compared to majority-white neighborhoods.
“If use of force were equitable, officers would have used force 291 fewer times in majority-black neighborhoods,” Garmendia wrote.
Garmendia said she told the department about the problems with the data. She noted in her report that the department had started collecting additional data that could be available for future analyses.
"If use of force were equitable, officers would have used force 291 fewer times in majority-black neighborhoods."
But the only information publicly available today is the same data that Garmendia flagged as inadequate two years ago. A police spokesperson said the department now collects extensive information about how and when its officers use force, but “does not have the capability to create custom reports from that data.” The spokesperson said the department could not provide the data to St. Louis Public Radio or make it otherwise publicly available because the standard reports include disciplinary information.
“By focusing the use of force on what happened to the officer, it erases the experience of the person on the street,” Garmendia said. “It's not being recorded and not being counted.”
How use-of-force data is used at other departments
The FBI ran a pilot program to collect use-of-force data in 2017, then opened its collection to the whole country in 2019. It requests reports from police departments on only the most severe uses of force, when officers fire guns, severely injure people or kill. The FBI program gathers comprehensive data that includes the race of the officer and person arrested, as well as injuries and other relevant circumstances.
The St. Louis County and Kansas City police departments, two of the largest in Missouri, said they are both participating in the voluntary federal program. Representatives of both departments said it took little effort to begin reporting to the FBI, because they already collect and analyze that data regularly.
“It doesn’t really take much time at all. Most of the information needed is already a part of the investigation,” wrote Sgt. Ward Smith, who works with the Kansas City Police Department’s data collection program.
Officers say the information is valuable to the departments, not just advocates or the FBI.
Watching the data “lets you know if you have some issue,” said Lt. Colby Dolly, commander of St. Louis County’s research and analysis unit. For instance, data showed that officers used tasers too frequently in 2015, Dolly said. So the department added new training. The department’s annual report shows taser use cut in half by 2019.
St. Louis County Police Department also publishes fresh use-of-force data every year for public access.
“It just keeps us accountable and transparent,” Dolly said.
“So often the experiences of residents, especially black residents, can be discounted as just one-off incidents without access to this data. ... If communities don't have access to the data, it makes it more difficult to make the case for change.”
Similar data from St. Louis police could shed light on where and how officers overuse force and ways training could prevent them from using violence, said David Dwight, executive director of Forward Through Ferguson.
“So often the experiences of residents, especially black residents, can be discounted as just one-off incidents without access to this data,” he said. Dwight said his organization has seen clear patterns in excessive use of force and brutality against black residents by St. Louis police. “If communities don't have access to the data, it makes it more difficult to make the case for change.”
Dwight also said that the public needs even more data than the FBI collects to provide a complete picture of how police interact with their communities. For instance, if an officer draws a gun and points it at someone but doesn’t fire it, neither the FBI nor the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department would count that as a use of force.
The FBI also doesn’t collect information when an officer injures someone, but that injury isn’t considered “serious” by federal standards.
What’s a “serious” injury by FBI standards?
Federal statutes define it as a “bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.”
How many “serious” injuries did SLMPD report in 2016?
The vast majority of the use-of-force incidents provided to City of St. Louis researcher Cristina Garmendia would likely not be collected by the FBI if St. Louis officers followed department policy.
That’s because over half of the incidents that the department did have data for include “physically overpowering” someone — which is “not likely to cause death or serious bodily injury,” according to the department’s policies. And 39% include the firing of tasers, which the department’s policies also say should not cause serious injury if used correctly.
But Dwight said those uses of force are still important to track: “Those less deadly incidents can still be devastating to people.”
Austin, formerly with the Department of Justice, said that it’s “like pulling teeth” to get most police departments to provide any data except crime statistics, if they’re not required to by local or federal governments.
“The St. Louis police department is not unique in its reticence to collect and publish use-of-force data,” he said. “But it could be on the cutting edge of doing the right thing.”
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