A stock photo of police crime scene tape. (Photo by David von Diemar via Unsplash.)

By John Ruch

An FBI database on police use of force has finally produced some findings after years of struggles with voluntary reporting, with little help from Georgia agencies, whose participation is among the nation’s lowest. But the state’s contributions are a bit better than they appear due to some reporting quirks.

At least four metro area police departments — including Atlanta’s — listed by the FBI as not participating in the National Use of Force Data Collection program actually are, but their data was delivered incomplete or slightly late this quarter. Staff turnovers and delays in gaining permission to submit data are other reasons some agencies say they’re willing to report but have yet to do so. The FBI did not respond to questions about Georgia reporting issues.

All the same, Georgia is in the bottom third of U.S. states for law enforcement agencies participating in the three-year-old database, which began as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests over police killings of civilians. Low reporting rates have prevented the database from providing useful information and late last year was seen as threatening its very existence. Earlier this year, the FBI announced participation had surpassed a 60 percent threshold for continuing the program and releasing some broad, national-level findings. Eighty percent participation is the threshold for releasing more detailed information.

In late May, the FBI issued use of force database information for all of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. Only the 2021 data met the 60 percent threshold, which means enough nationwide agencies reporting to represent that percentage of sworn officers. The early 2022 information represented about 53 percent of sworn officers.

For purposes of the database, the FBI defines “use of force” as “any action that resulted in the death or serious bodily injury of a person, or the discharge of a firearm at or in the direction of a person.” The FBI’s high-level analysis of the 2021 data, provided only as percentages and ratios, was not especially illuminating. Of the total use of force incidents reported to the FBI, 33.2 percent caused death and 17 percent involved the discharge of a firearm. Among reasons for the initial contact with law enforcement officers, 56.8 percent of incidents involved “responding to unlawful or suspicious activities.” Medical, mental health or welfare checks accounted for 7.6 percent. Another 6.9 fell under the mysterious category of “unknown and unlikely to ever be known.”

For states like Georgia, participation is too low for statistically significant local results, and specific incident details remain withheld under the rationale of privacy. In Georgia, the FBI says 53 out of 769 law enforcement agencies are participating, representing about 26 percent of the sworn officers.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) acts as the funnel for local agencies’ reports to the FBI, and also sends reports about its own officers. Natalie Ammons, the GBI’s deputy director of public and governmental affairs, is a member of the FBI’s Use of Force Data Collection Task Force. She would not comment directly on Georgia’s low participation but emphasized the GBI’s work in encouraging agencies to voluntarily join.

“We have partnered with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association to communicate and encourage their members to participate in the collection,” Ammons said in an email. “We exhibit at conferences and facilitate workshops at these conferences with reps from the FBI to talk about the collection. We also speak to smaller groups on the agency level or regional command staff meetings about the collection.”

Many metro Atlanta agencies are at least enrolled and eligible to participate after completing a vetting process. Some of the participating agencies do so enthusiastically.

“I am a firm believer in intelligence-led policing and that includes evaluating all aspects of our performance and operations,” said Roswell Police Chief James Conroy about his department’s participation. “We cannot effectively identify and evaluate use-of-force trends nationwide without widespread information-sharing at the local, state and federal levels. Our collective participation in the FBI’s reporting program can only provide us stronger, actionable data in our pursuit of the continuous improvement of this profession.”

“The more agencies that participate, the more accurate the data will be,” said Lt. Kay Crider of the Peachtree City Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

There is no obvious pattern among the 2022 first-quarter reporting rates by states, territories and the District of Columbia. Alabama, D.C. and West Virginia have 100 percent participation, while Idaho and Maine did not submit any data at all. Georgia has about 7 percent of agencies reporting, representing about 26 percent of sworn officers, indicating that larger departments are doing most of the reporting. California and Illinois also have participation rates hovering around 26 percent of officers.

One challenge for small agencies, as the Washington Post reported last year, is that the FBI seeks detailed information about each incident, requiring significant time and money to compile and submit.

Registration and personnel changes are other challenges, according to the GBI’s Ammons.

“One roadblock on a local agency level that I am aware of is the initial account setup for the person that will be entering the data can be challenging,” she said. “To have access to such a secure system, a lot goes into the vetting process. It is my experience that this is the most difficult part of the process.”

“Employee turnover is also an issue,” Ammons said. “If someone responsible for entering this data at an agency is promoted, retired or is transferred, [and] if they or someone else at the agency does not ensure someone else continues to enter the information, it doesn’t get done.”

Among the handful of metro Atlanta agencies listed as not even enrolled in the program, mystery decisions by former chiefs were cited by two. The Marietta Police Department’s lack of participation is a decision “intentionally made” for an unknown reason by its recently retired chief, according to a spokesperson, while the new commander is willing to consider joining.

In Avondale Estates, new Police Chief Harry Hess just took command in April of a department in disarray after a disastrous failure to gain accreditation amid complaints of discriminatory policing. Hess previously worked at the Clarkston Police Department, where he happened to be in charge of filing the use of force reports for the FBI database. He’s setting up the Avondale Estates department to do that as well.

“It’s funny you called me because just yesterday I submitted my application [to register for the database]… Moving forward, we absolutely will be participating in it,” said Hess, who is a fan of the program.

“First and foremost is transparency… We need to be on the forefront of the information getting out versus being responsive and having to be on our heels during these types of incidents,” Hess said, citing the “ripple effects” and time to “twist the words” if info doesn’t come directly from the police.

Similar issues may affect agencies listed as enrolled but not participating. The Sandy Springs Police Department says its reporting was delayed by a reorganization that reassigned staff members. New Fairburn Police Chief James McCarthy said no one in his command staff was aware of the practice of submitting information to the database. Registration may also be an issue. The Emory University Police Department says it has an officer awaiting credentials, while the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office says its officer’s credentials don’t work and the FBI help desk so far has been unable to fix it.

Another issue is how the data gets processed. The police departments of Atlanta, Brookhaven, Clarkston and Lilburn all were surprised to hear from SaportaReport that the FBI listed them as enrolled but not participating in the database. They all said they recently filed their reports.

Atlanta’s reports did not include all of the necessary information, according to the GBI’s Ammons. Those reports are now complete, she said, but are past the first-quarter filing deadline. Atlanta Police Department spokesperson Chata M. Spikes also noted the department has its own “use of force dashboard” for public examination, though the latest data there dates to the third quarter of 2021.

As for Brookhaven, Clarkston and Lilburn, that seems to be on the GBI. Ammons said the GBI submitted its data on May 4 — the day after the FBI’s deadline for the first-quarter report.

“They will show as participating in the Q2 report,” said Ammons. “We have since added another person with access that will be responsible for reviewing and submitting reports so they will be done in a timely manner.”

The use of force database is a separate system from the FBI’s better-known compilation of nationwide crime data, which is also gathered voluntarily from local law enforcement agencies and used for such purposes as calculating crime rates. The FBI last year launched a new version of that reporting system and is now seeing major participation problems, including a lack of submission by the police departments of Los Angeles and New York, as The Marshall Project and Axios reported this month.

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