How much can the public learn if officers kill or injure a person? In states like North Carolina, little to nothing. Legislators voted last year to shroud a database with this information in secrecy.
Some states and cities are moving toward more public transparency. New Jersey, for instance, has created a public database tracking officers’ use of weapons and physical force.
Officers’ names are listed. The dashboard reports the race of the officer. The portal, which tracks incidents as far back as Oct. 2020, discloses if the officer was hurt.
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Other states take a more conservative approach, omitting the identity of officers involved. California, for instance, offers demographic details about the officer and subject but does not identify them by name.
Washington and Colorado are creating public portals, according to a consultant’s report submitted in March to this state’s SBI Center on Reduction of Use of Force by Law Enforcement. Those states are still considering what details to include.
While states have been slower to create databases, some city police departments have taken the lead on disclosing details about use of force to the public.
From New York City to Nashville, Tenn., at least 23 U.S. cities have launched databases that offer some information about use of force incidents to the public, according to the report prepared by Research Triangle Institute, which is helping the SBI examine use of force reporting elsewhere.
In North Carolina, legislators created a confidential database for incidents where officers kill or badly injure people. The state commissions that certify law enforcement officers manage it.
A provision in North Carolina’s budget, which was approved in December, forbids local agencies from publicly sharing data it collects on cases where officers kill or badly injure a person.
There is uncertainty about how the now-secret North Carolina database will be used at all. The statute setting it up gives no guidance about how the information is to be analyzed or used.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation began collecting information about such incidents from local and state law enforcement in 2016.
So far, though, it hasn’t released any findings. According to its website, the FBI has not reached 60% reporting from local agencies, a benchmark it set before releasing information.
A small number of North Carolina agencies report use of force information to the FBI. In 2021, 31 out of this state’s 585 law enforcement agencies reported use of force information to the FBI. That equated to 24% of officers in the state. Neither the Winston-Salem Police Department nor the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office submit data, according to a list posted on the database’s website.
Concord Police Department is one of the 31 agencies in North Carolina that reports its use of force incidents to the FBI. Chief Gary Gacek said he believes data collection is key to understanding prevention of officers’ unnecessary use of force.
Gacek, an advisory member of the SBI Center on Reduction of Use of Force by Law Enforcement, said he suspects the FBI will have difficulty collecting information from law enforcement agencies.
“Until the federal government makes that more of a requirement and ties, perhaps, federal grant money to that,” Gacek said, “I don’t necessarily see enough law enforcement agencies across the country making that database worthwhile for statistical purposes.”
This report was made possible through a grant from the Pulitzer Center to the North Carolina News Collaborative, a coalition of 23 news organizations across the state.