September 20, 2014

NYPD Use of Force Stats: Consider the Source

The NYPD is proudly touting statistics that indicate that the use of force by police officers has been declining for the past 20 years. That's great. Unfortunately, it may not be true. As the department has had to acknowledge, the NYPD is relying in large part on self-reporting by officers. Color me cynical, but the sourcing is problematic.

Of the many numbers in the NYPD's report, one that catches the eye concerns the percentage of arrests that involve the use of force. According to Commissioner Bratton, in 2013, the NYPD made nearly 400,000 arrests, in which only about 2 percent did officers use force.  This number is down significantly from the 8.5 percent rate from 20 years earlier.  Bratton claims that these stats show that officers are demonstrating an "extraordinary record of restraint," and are evidence that police force is the rare exception.

But, you might ask, where do these numbers come from? After all, it's not like tracking points per game in the NBA, where you have easily defined terms, contemporaneous score keeping, and video. Often times almost every aspect of the arrest is subject to dispute. But the NYPD has a simple solution to this problem: just ask the officers if they used force, and trust their answers.

It works this way: arrest paperwork that arresting officers routinely complete allow for all sorts of information to be checked off or filled in. For instance, was the crime gang related, what clothing was the arrestee wearing, was a phone call made, and if so, to what person and number, the relationship between the victim and defendant, and so forth. One question is whether force was used, and if so, what sort of force (baton, fists, gun, etc.). How this question is answered is up to the officer, hence the NYPD's concession to the New York Times that this figure is self-reported.

While many arrests are uneventful, peaceful even, many others involve a casual aggression. By this I am talking about a rough twisting of arms, throwing the person around, putting the handcuffs on far more tightly than necessary (which often causes real, albeit temporary, injuries and pain), and the like. As I have seen over the years in my practice, this sort of force almost always goes unrecorded.

Indeed, the only time force is recorded is when it has to be. For instance, if the person being arrested is injured and will require medical attention. In those sorts of cases, the use of force is objectively obvious and the officer will usually affirmatively defend his/her conduct by explaining the force that was used, and how the defendant left the officer no choice. These arrests almost always charge assault and/or resisting arrest.

According to a Times source, the NYPD itself looks to officers' charging resisting arrest as a way of tracking those officers' use of force. When this criteria is applied, the presumptive use of force percentages are increased.

The bottom line is that these numbers are of little value. Officers, who have no desire to draw attention to their uses of force, downplay or outright cover up their conduct, leaving us with a series of statistics with little credibility.

(NY Times: Bratton'' Numbers on Use of Force by New York Police Raise Questions)

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