Creating a Canadian database of police use of force incidents: Part 1
October 2, 2023 By Audrey MacIsaac, Andrew Brown, Bryce Jenkins, Ariane-Jade Khanizadeh, Tori Semple and Craig Bennell
Benefits for the police, the public and researcher
Concerns surrounding the use of force by police officers are growing, fuelled by perceptions that the police use force too frequently, research showing that force is applied disproportionately to members of certain groups, and views that the mechanisms for holding police responsible for unjustified force are inadequate. Regardless of where these concerns originate, it is to everyone’s benefit – both the public and the police – to address these issues. While there is not a single solution that will resolve all concerns, one crucial step would be the creation of a national database to track the use of force by Canadian police officers. In this article, we outline what this database might capture, and we identify possible benefits of this database. In a subsequent Blue Line article, we will highlight potential challenges that would likely be encountered when creating this database.1
Discussions regarding the development of national use-of-force databases have been ongoing in Canada and the U.S. for years. However, little progress has been made.2 To fill this void, different news agencies have created databases by using publicly available sources. For example, in Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has created their Deadly Force database. Databases created by news agencies can help us understand use-of-force incidents and hold police officers accountable, but they have also been criticized. One common criticism is that the cases included in the databases are often not associated with sufficient context, which prevents a full understanding of the incidents (e.g., whether the police were justified in using lethal force).3 Another criticism relates to the nature of the cases included in the databases. For example, databases created by news organizations likely underestimate how often police officers use lethal force because they only include cases where civilians were shot and killed by police. Problematically, they exclude cases where a police officer discharged their firearm but missed their target or caused non-fatal injuries.4
A Canadian use-of-force database
To address concerns with databases created by news agencies, the authors believe a new national database should be developed in Canada. This database should include both fatal and non-fatal force and should be mandatory for all police services to complete. We agree with Laming (2017) that the database should include: personal characteristics of the officer(s) and civilian, whether the civilian had a weapon, the location of the incident, the nature of the incident, whether there were injuries, whether the officer(s) tried to de-escalate the situation, and the types of force used by the officer(s).3 It would also be important to collect information on the civilian that goes beyond personal characteristics (e.g., whether they were perceived to be experiencing a mental health crisis at the time); actions of the civilian leading up to the use of force (e.g., whether they were being assaultive); and other situational variables (e.g., the number of officers present on scene). Additionally, consideration could also be given to whether the database should capture charges recommended against the officer(s), the nature of those charges and what the outcome of any charges were (e.g., prosecutions and convictions).
Potential benefits of a Canadian use-of-force database
A national use-of-force database would benefit the public, the police and researchers who study policing issues. Some of the most important benefits include:
Police transparency. Transparency should be a goal of any police service in a free and democratic society. A national use-of-force database would help achieve this by providing information about how frequently and under what circumstances, police officers use their authority against civilians. It’s not enough for the police to only collect use-of-force data. They must openly share this data with the public so that they can determine whether Canadian police officers are carrying out their duties in a fair and just manner.
Perceptions of police legitimacy. Perceptions of police legitimacy refer to whether people view the police as a legitimate source of authority. According to one model of police legitimacy, the construct relates to: (1) perceptions of police lawfulness (whether police officers follow established rules), (2) perceptions of procedural fairness (whether interactions with the police are fair and impartial), (3) perceptions of distributive fairness (whether the police allocate resources fairly across groups), and (4) perceptions of police effectiveness (whether police achieve results).5 In some ways, a national use-of-force database could improve perceived police legitimacy. For example, the database could address police lawfulness in that it would likely show that the use of force by police officers, especially lethal force, happens rarely and is legally justified in most cases. In other ways, a national database could raise concerns about police legitimacy, but this would allow the police to identify key areas for improvement. For example, in line with existing research, a national database would likely indicate that procedural fairness is an issue in Canada, in that the use of force by police varies as a function of citizen race.6
Understanding police use of force. A national use-of-force database would also help people understand when and why Canadian police officers use force. Police-citizen encounters depend on both officer and citizen behaviour. To properly understand these complex, transactional events, and to address concerns about these encounters, we need accurate and reliable information about the officer(s) and citizen(s) involved in use-of-force incidents and about the incidents themselves.
A national use-of-force database would benefit the public, the police and researchers who study policing issues.
Developing strategies for improvement. A better understanding of use-of-force incidents could allow strategies to be developed to reduce police use of force. For example, a national database could help explain why fatal incidents occur, which might help police services develop more informed policies (e.g., around the use of less-lethal weapons) and practices (e.g., around scenario-based training) to reduce occurrences of lethal force.
Reducing misconceptions about police use of force. A national use-of-force database could also be used to reduce misconceptions the public has about policing.7 For example, the public appears to overestimate how frequently police officers use force. This could be confirmed and corrected using data from a national use-of-force database. For constructive discussions to take place about police use of force, it is important for the police to understand these public misconceptions and for the public to better understand when and why police officers use force.
Addressing problems with databases created by news agencies. As mentioned above, while databases created by news agencies currently house the best available data on the use of lethal force by police officers in North America, concerns have been raised about these databases. For example, these databases often provide only a partial picture of use-of-force incidents. A national use-of-force database, composed of official police data, should provide a more complete picture of use-of-force incidents in Canada.
A database like the one described in this article will not eliminate all the concerns Canadians might have with policing; however, it will hopefully address some of their concerns about police use of force by helping to increase police transparency and accountability. The database would also be of value to the police. Not only would it allow them to show the public that the use of force, particularly lethal force, is rare in Canada and legally justified in most instances, but it will contribute to the public’s understanding of when and why force is used. Finally, the development of a national use-of-force database will benefit those interested in understanding the complexities of use-of-force encounters, testing theories for why force is used in some circumstances more than others and identifying use-of-force trends. This research should allow evidence-based strategies to be developed to minimize the likelihood that serious levels of force need to be used during police-public encounters. In an upcoming article in Blue Line, we will explore challenges that will likely be encountered when attempting to create a national use-of-force database. For a functional database to be created, these challenges will need to be resolved.
- For a more detailed discussion of the issues included in this article, please see: Bennell, C., Brown, A. S., Jenkins, B., Khanizadeh, A. J., MacIsaac, A., & Semple, T. (2022). The need for a Canadian database of police use-of-force incidents. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 64, 6-29.
- Jackman, T. (June 9, 2021). For a second year, most U.S. police departments decline to share information on their use of force. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/06/09/police-use-of-force-data/.
- Klinger, D. A., & Slocum, L. A. (2017). Critical assessment of an analysis of a journalistic compendium of citizens killed by police gunfire. Criminology and Public Policy, 16, 349-362.
- Laming, E. (July 18, 2017). Canada needs a national database to track deadly force by police. Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/erick-laming/deadly-force-by-police_a_23034831/.
- Tankebe, J., Reisig, M. D., & Wang, X. (2016). A multidimensional model of police legitimacy: A cross-cultural assessment. Law and Human Behavior, 40, 11-22.
- Wortley, S., Laniyonu, A., & Laming, E. (2020). Use of force by the Toronto Police Service. Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved from: http://www3.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/Use%20of%20force%20by%20the%20Toronto%20Police%20Service%20Final%20report.pdf.
- Bennell, C., Alpert, G., Andersen, J. P., Arpaia, J., Huhta, J. M., Kahn, K. B., … & White, M. D. (2021). Advancing police use of force research and practice: Urgent issues and prospects. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 26, 121-144.
Audrey MacIsaac is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. Her research interests include the use of de-escalation by police officers, officer safety, and police training.
Andrew Brown is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. His research interests include the use of force, police misconduct, body-worn cameras, and officer memory for use-of-force events.
Bryce Jenkins is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. His research interests include police training for use-of-force and de-escalation to optimize skill acquisition, retention, and transfer, the implications of using tactical officers and public perceptions of their use, and tactical officer decision-making.
Ariane-Jade Khanizadeh is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. Her research interests include public perceptions of police use of force, the use of force by police, police decision-making, and police training.
Tori Semple is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. Her research interests include police use of force and de-escalation, police training, police response to persons with a mental illness or who are in crisis, and the use and consequences of tactical teams.
Craig Bennell is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University where he is also Director of the Police Research Lab. He collaborates with Canadian police services to promote evidence-based policing. He has a particular interest in de-escalation and police use of force, where his research focuses on factors that influence police decision-making and strategies for improving training in these areas.
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