Creating a Canadian database of police use of force incidents: Part 2
November 27, 2023 By Audrey MacIsaac, Andrew Brown, Bryce Jenkins, Ariane-Jade Khanizadeh, Tori Semple and Craig Bennell
In a previous Blue Line article, we advocated for a national use-of-force database. We outlined what the database might capture and identified several possible benefits that may be associated with such a database. This article will highlight challenges that might be encountered when attempting to create this database. For a functional database to be created, the following challenges must be resolved.1
For a national use-of-force database to be useful, police services must report on all relevant incidents. As is evident in the U.S., when reporting is voluntary, it is challenging to get police services to provide their data.2 This drastically reduces the value of a national use-of-force database. Like the U.S., there is no central authority governing police record keeping in Canada, which means the development of mandatory reporting procedures will be a challenge. Making reporting mandatory would likely require the coordination of different branches of government responsible for overseeing policing in Canada.
Resistance from the policing community
We also expect that resistance from the policing community will be a challenge. There is ample evidence of this from the U.S., which has prevented a functional national use-of-force database being developed there. Some police chiefs in the U.S. have claimed that the procedures to submit data to national databases take a lot of time and resources, which they do not have. Others have pointed out that federal government initiatives can be easily ignored, given amendments in the U.S. Constitution that prevent the federal government from requiring states to report on data. Some have also pointed out that police culture leads to resistance (e.g., an emphasis on secrecy and solidarity, a desire to shield officers from public complaints and legal liability, and beliefs that police services own use-of-force data and can decide who should get access to it).
Despite the many calls for more standardized and transparent use-of-force data collection and reporting in Canada, a similar lack of progress has been made here. This might be for some of the same reasons that progress has been slow in the U.S.
Establishing incident inclusion criteria
Determining what types of incidents to include in a national use-of-force database may also lead to challenges. For example, should drawing and displaying a firearm, or any other weapon, be included in the database? Drawing and displaying a weapon is a clear show of force, and arguments could be made that these incidents be included. Yet, many Canadian police services do not currently record this data.
The information submitted by police services to the database must be consistent to ensure that high-quality data is recorded.
Inclusion criteria would also need to be established for lower levels of force, like empty-handed physical control techniques. Currently, “hard” physical force appears to be recorded across most jurisdictions in Canada, but “soft” physical force tends to be recorded only if the force results in injury. While the recording of soft force would certainly be of interest, especially given that the public probably perceives it as force, the burden of consistently recording and reporting on soft physical force would be significant given how often it is used. If we exclude certain types of force from a national database, these exclusions should be explicitly acknowledged so that the public and other users of the database are aware that these incidents are not included.
The information submitted by police services to the database must be consistent to ensure that high-quality data is recorded. This would be challenging given the current lack of direction given to police services about how to record their use-of-force data and current variations in data recording procedures. A set of guidelines that include standardized variable definitions and coding procedures would be required to manage these challenges.
Challenges with recording certain variables
Specific challenges would arise when attempting to record certain variables. For example, given concerns around the use of force on persons with a mental illness, a variable capturing this information would be useful. However, information regarding someone’s health is protected under privacy laws, and therefore, the presence of mental illness would need to be based on the officer’s perception, which may not be accurate. Similar challenges would exist for other important variables, like whether the civilian suffered injuries as a result of the incident, which the officer is not always aware of.
Who would be responsible for data collection and storage?
Another obvious question that would emerge when attempting to develop a national use-of-force database is who should be responsible for entering data into the database and managing it. Should police services directly enter data into the system, or should complete use-of-force reports be provided to a third party who would then validate and enter the information? Should the policing community be responsible for housing the database, or should an external agency manage the database, given concerns around police oversight and public trust in the police? If an external agency, which agency?
To realize the many benefits that will likely be associated with a national use-of-force database in Canada – including benefits to police services, the public, and researchers interested in use-of-force issues – a range of challenges will need to be resolved. Some of these challenges may appear insurmountable, and the lack of progress being made in the U.S. towards the development of a fully functioning database is certainly cause for concern. But similar challenges were likely encountered during comparable ventures, and relevant stakeholders found ways to navigate these challenges. One example that comes to mind is the development of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), which operates at a national level with the assistance of investigators from across the country.3 If stakeholders are motivated to develop a national use-of-force database, the challenges identified above can be resolved. We believe the benefits of a database, as outlined in our previous Blue Line article, should be sufficient motivation.
- 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/.
- Collins, P. I., Johnson, G. F., Choy, A., Davidson, K. T., & Mackay, R. E. (1998). Advances in violent crime analysis and law enforcement: The Canadian violent crime linkage analysis system. Journal of Government Information, 25, 277-284.
To read Part 1 of this article, click here.
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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