Police use-of-force records inconsistent across jurisdictions

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Jonathan Ferrell — their deaths at the hands of police officers have pushed the relationship between police and the community to its limits.

The use of force is a necessary part of law enforcement, but even a single tragic event can cast a shadow over police departments around the country.

“We can build confidence and we can build trust, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” President Barack Obama said in a recent address involving police and community relationships.

WNCN Investigates started digging into the real numbers, building a database to find out how just how often police departments in Central North Carolina use force, and more importantly how they keep track of it.

“When we’ve seen a number of these instances occur both in N.C. and throughout the nation, those are opportunities to step back, rethink the policies we have in place, and make sure we do everything we can to prevent the next tragedy from being here,” said Chris Brook, legal director for ACLU North Carolina.

Use of force

Compare the number of times officers used force to the total number of calls for service, and across the board it’s a relatively small percentage.

“Most interactions between police and the public do not end in a use-of-force situation, but one tragedy is one tragedy too many,” Brook explained.

Use of force numbers provided by each department:

CITY/TOWN 2012 2013
CARY 43 40
DURHAM 120 incidents 97 incidents
FAYETTEVILLE 157 114
FUQUAY-VARINA 6 20
GARNER 51 applications 44 applications
HOLLY SPRINGS 5 0
KNIGHTDALE 21 applications 13 applications
RALEIGH 1,481 (379 incidents 1,773 (418 incidents
SMITHFIELD 16 13
SOUTHERN PINES 20 24

 

At first glance, the Raleigh Police Department has some of the highest use-of-force numbers with more than 1,000 applications of force each year. An application is each individual time an individual officer uses force. Use of force incidents are the number of calls in which some form of force was used.

This makes it difficult to compare numbers across the board.

Raleigh police department provided its statistics but declined a request for an on-camera interview. However, Raleigh also keeps some of the most inclusive records, which has a major impact on the numbers.

Record keeping can be drastically different between cities, so some will track more use of force than others.

From a chief’s perspective

“The use of force almost automatically generates questions from others that aren’t directly involved with it,” explained Garner police Chief Brandon Zuidema. “We are empowering and authorizing these men and women to take away other people’s civil rights and to take away their freedoms, and that’s the number one thing we value.”

The Garner Police Department had some of the highest numbers compared to other towns its size; but like Raleigh, they were also very detailed in what they considered use of force.

“What I know is when they have to use force, they do. And they use it correctly,” Zuidema said. “I started my law enforcement career going on 22 years ago, and there was a little more respect for the police in some cases.

“You’d show up and give a direction, and people would just obey and understand because you were the police and that’s what happened. That’s just not the case anymore. Unfortunately in some cases we need to demonstrate that we are willing to use force if necessary when it’s lawful and correct.”

Garner police keeps track of every time any officer even points a weapon, which was the most common type of force officers used.

“People tend to understand that if they have a gun drawn on them, the officer is serious about what they mean,” Zuidema said. “We’d much rather have compliance than actually have to apply a physical force, or a Taser, or a baton or heaven forbid a firearm.”

He said for his department, it’s about being able to justify every incident.

“It’s also about transparency,” he added. “It’s about making sure the community knows what we do, and more importantly why we do it.”

Brook agreed, saying “the best policing and law enforcement occurs when there is that community perspective taken in to account.”

Discrepancies in Durham

The Durham Police Department has faced some of the most notable uses of force incidents, but its records tell a different story. In fact, WNCN Investigates found several discrepancies in the department’s provided data.

Most of the other departments WNCN spoke with said they count each individual officer’s use of force. Durham does not.

Durham police respond to protestersIn 2013, Durham police dispatched dozens of officers in riot gear to disperse a massive group of protesters downtown. After the protest, the department only logged two use-of-force incidents that day — one physical and one use of a Taser. Although tear gas was dropped to clear the crowd, it was not listed in the use-of-force reports.

The police department also does not keep track of how often its officers point their weapons. Durham police Chief Jose Lopez told WNCN that it is because officers pulling their weapons happens all the time.

In a 2014 report, the use of firearms was nowhere to be found, only a category called “other,” even though police shot a man in July and shot at a suspect in December.

And in 2013, a Durham officer shot and killed Jose Ocampo during a call. WNCN checked the dates and that incident is not listed in the police department’s use-of-force records.

That same year officers also shot and killed Derek Walker, who was waiving a gun downtown. In the use-of-force reports the event is listed only as a use of “physical” force, not a “firearm.”

WNCN tried multiple times to sit down with Lopez to talk about their records, but each time he declined an interview. WNCN even tried to talk with him in the parking lot outside of the police station, but the chief said he wasn’t going to talk on camera and he walked away.

Building trust

“Engaging in dialogue with one another, and having conversations about what works in their community and what doesn’t work in the law enforcement community is really a great place to start,” Brook explained.

The reality is it’s a job like no other — officers willing to put their lives on the line to protect ours. But Zuidema said when it comes to use of force, trust not only has to be earned, it is something police officers are constantly working to maintain.

“We supplement, we grow, we do more and try to make sure we’re using social media, we’re using educational campaigns and we’re communicating about what we do and again why we do it,” Zuidema said. “That’s most important.”

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Copyright 2015 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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