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Criminal Justice and Policing

MPD Posts New Use of Force Data, Yet Secrecy Concerns Remain

IPSR article inspired City Council to seek greater transparency

Two Memphis Police officers survey a chaotic crime scene in Downtown Memphis during 2019. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file photo)

Nine months after an Institute for Public Service Reporting article inspired the Memphis City Council to seek greater transparency in police misconduct investigations, the Memphis Police Department is posting new data on its website.

The public dashboard on MPD’s  opens in a new windowReimagine Policing site offers access to a range of statistical data on use of force and other misconduct allegations dating back to 2016. It also includes a handful of limited records in cases when officers were found to have violated excessive force policy.

With the development, Memphis joins cities like  opens in a new windowChicago and  opens in a new windowMinneapolis that openly offer a range of use-of-force and misconduct records to promote accountability and build public trust.

“Any time you have a dashboard where you’re measuring your outcomes and publicizing what you’re doing, that’s really good for transparency,’’ Councilman Jeff Warren said. “And it’s good for building relationships between the police and community.’’

Mayor Jim Strickland said the so-called  opens in a new windowInspectional Services Bureau (ISB) Dashboard – named for the MPD unit that conducts internal investigations of officer conduct – is the product of “many hours of work.”

“Transparency in all things city government has always been a top priority in this administration,’’ Strickland said in a prepared statement. “This new tool will only add to that and will serve as another strong tool to hold us accountable and build trust with the citizens we serve.”

Memphis’ dashboard is not nearly as thorough, however, as one in  opens in a new windowSeattle, where police allow citizens to readily download specifics on more than 12,000 use-of-force incidents stretching back to 2014, or as detailed as online information in New York. There, a recent law change allowed construction of a  opens in a new windowpublic database involving more than 300,000 founded and unfounded misconduct complaints searchable by officers’ names.

“The idea that there should be a dashboard is a good one. But I’ll be really surprised if (MPD’s new data) does anything to remedy the years of obfuscation and lack of transparency that we’ve seen from this department,’’ said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization.

The new ISB dashboard includes data on the five types of violations allegedly committed by officers. (Courtesy City of Memphis)

The Memphis push for transparency started late last spring amid daily protests here and across the country following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Memphis Councilman JB Smiley Jr. introduced a transparency resolution in June after reading a  opens in a new windowreport by the  opens in a new windowInstitute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian that told how Strickland’s Public Records Office  opens in a new windowwanted $6,000 to release excessive force complaints filed against MPD officers over a five-year period.

Though the news organizations later reviewed more than 100 of those reports without paying a fee, scores of reports still haven’t been released.

Smiley’s resolution asked Strickland’s administration to “research the feasibility’’ of expanding the city’s online data portal to include “excessive force complaints’’ and information on the “misuse of body worn cameras.”

That led to months of planning and the unveiling Thursday of the new dashboard.

One of the dashboard’s primary features involves a statistical presentation of excessive and unnecessary force allegations against officers. The chart tracks 323 such allegations between 2016 and last year, noting only 16 of the allegations – fewer than 5% – were sustained.

The presentation provides demographic information, tallying the race and gender of complainants and officers.

The dashboard also charts 148 alleged violations of body camera and in-car video policy, disclosing that 128 led to consequences ranging from reprimands to suspensions and resignations.

Data on the dashboard says officers used force in 2019 in just 873 incidents among 939,025 total calls for service.

Included on the dashboard are portions of six case files in which excessive force allegations were sustained, including a 2018 incident involving officer Branon Jenkins, who received a 17-day suspension after allegedly punching and kicking a handcuffed detainee.

“Very few cities have such a dashboard and none of them are better than this one,” Strickland said Jan. 26 when he gave council members a sneak peek of the dashboard.

Yet far greater amounts of detail on cases and officers are available in Seattle, where citizens can readily download itemized incident data into Excel spreadsheets. That data lists thousands of incidents in which police employed force, complete with the date of the incident, the report number, the officer’s badge number and the race and gender of the subject arrested.

In all, the data includes more than 12,000 rows documenting a range of use of force incidents since 2014.

Seattle’s presentation is made in cooperation with the Public Safety  opens in a new windowOpen Data Portal operated by the National Police Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches policing issues. According to the foundation, 130 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in its Police Data Initiative to promote “enhanced understanding, and accountability between communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.’’

And just this month in New York, police officials began publishing partial disciplinary records dating to 2014. According to the New York Times, the New York Police Department’s online dashboard includes profiles of all of its 35,000 active police officers along with summaries of complaints and outcomes, yet omits pending cases in which officers weren’t disciplined.

The posting there follows the New York State Legislature’s repeal last summer of a law that had shielded most police disciplinary records from public disclosure.

The law change also led the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board to release data that the New York Civil Liberties Union then used to create an online searchable database of more than 323,000 unique complaint records involving some 81,000 active or former police officers. The data includes both founded and unfounded allegations.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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