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Is Florida’s disinterest helping scuttle FBI’s police use-of-force project?

In a program that tracks when police kill people, Florida has one of the lowest participation rates, the FBI says. But agencies dispute the data.
Bullet holes show where Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies opened fire on a pickup truck in Riverview last December, killing 27-year-old Dylan Ray Scott. Deputies said Scott appeared to be reaching for a gun. The Sheriff’s Office said it has been reporting use-of-force incidents like these but the FBI says it's not.
Bullet holes show where Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies opened fire on a pickup truck in Riverview last December, killing 27-year-old Dylan Ray Scott. Deputies said Scott appeared to be reaching for a gun. The Sheriff’s Office said it has been reporting use-of-force incidents like these but the FBI says it's not. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2021|Updated Dec. 18, 2021

An FBI program meant to capture data on when police kill and seriously injure people could be shut down next year — before it can report findings — due to a lack of participation among law enforcement agencies.

Based on what little information the FBI has made publicly available, Florida’s law enforcement system appears to be one of the leading culprits. According to the FBI, just 27 of the 186 Florida agencies enrolled in the voluntary National Use-of-Force Data Collection program have followed through and shared their use-of-force reports in 2021, the program’s third year.

But those numbers might not reflect reality.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which recently became the intermediary between local agencies and the FBI, told the Tampa Bay Times it has submitted reports to the FBI nine times so far in 2021. The department provided a list of agencies that have participated since September 2020, amounting to one third of the state total and almost all in Tampa Bay.

An FBI spokesperson said via email that participants in the program now number 57 percent of federal, state, local, tribal and campus officers nationwide, still below the threshold of 60 percent the program must meet by the end of 2022. She declined to answer other questions and deferred to the Department of Law Enforcement. It’s not clear whether the discrepancy in the data has affected the FBI’s calculations.

“It’s on a lifeline, sadly,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said of the national program. “I think it’s really, really sad and a terrible situation that we don’t have this type of reporting, because the data in the metrics is important.”

Gualtieri, who served on the task force that developed the program, said planning began in 2015, out of then-FBI director James Comey’s frustration that the public could turn to The Washington Post and The Guardian for databases of police killings but could not get the information from the federal government.

News of the program’s potential demise came earlier this month in a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It noted that the project has failed to cross the “participation threshold” despite gains from its first year, 2019, when only 44 percent of the nation’s law enforcement officers were taking part. The federal Office of Management and Budget set the 60 percent threshold to ensure the data’s quality.

The FBI has not published any of the data collected from the program, but it does maintain a public list of agencies enrolled and participating in the program. According to the list, more than 10,000 agencies are enrolled — an increase of more than 2,000 over 2020. More than 7,500 of them are listed as participating this year and several states have perfect participation rates.

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Florida has the second-lowest participation rate of any state, according to the list. Of 19 Tampa Bay agencies that appear on the list, four are listed as participating: Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Gulfport Police Department and Temple Terrace Police Department.

But the agencies the FBI lists as enrolled but not participating — including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater — told the Times they’ve continued to send data monthly to the Department of Law Enforcement and could not say why the FBI’s public information said otherwise.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, joined by St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, speaks to reporters at the scene where a St. Petersburg police officer shot a 17-year-old boy in October. Gualtieri said the FBI's project to collect use-of-force data from law enforcement agencies nationwide project is "on a lifeline."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, joined by St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, speaks to reporters at the scene where a St. Petersburg police officer shot a 17-year-old boy in October. Gualtieri said the FBI's project to collect use-of-force data from law enforcement agencies nationwide project is "on a lifeline." [ Boyzell Hosey / Tampa Bay Times ]

Until September 2020, Florida agencies were tasked with submitting information to the FBI individually. Late last year, the Department of Law Enforcement stepped in as an intermediary and beginning this year, Florida agencies seeking to participate must work through the department rather than directly with the FBI.

In a series of emails, a Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson said the department plans to file an annual report to the FBI at the end of the year, in addition to the data it has already shared. She said that the department has already raised concerns with the FBI about the numbers discrepancy and that the FBI is “working to fix the problem.”

A Washington Post story this month cited two potential factors in the low overall participation rate: Agencies failing to enter data when they don’t have a use-of-force incident in a given month, and a reporting process that’s too burdensome for some agencies. Art Avecedo, former Miami and Houston police chief, said Houston police would have had to hire three employees to report the data.

But it’s not clear either of these factors are real problems. Almost all local agencies told the Times they knew to submit so-called “zero reports” even when they didn’t have incidents to file.

All the agencies said the process took no more than a few minutes, even when they did have incidents to report. Gualtieri called assertions like Acevedo’s “nonsense,” saying that in his experience pitching the program many law enforcement agencies are simply reluctant to share any information with the federal government.

Most local agencies told the Times they joined the program in the interest of transparency. Even if the program continues, though, the FBI has said it will not publish individual agency data. The closest it will get is statewide.

The program also isn’t designed to record all uses of force. It is limited to cases in which an officer kills someone, fires a gun at someone or causes “serious bodily injury.” The FBI’s definition of serious bodily injury, based in part on federal law, includes what Gualtieri described as uses of force that could have resulted in death. Some examples provided by the FBI include gunshot wounds, apparent broken bones and dog bites.

The data doesn’t capture every time an officer uses a Taser, wrestles someone to the ground or hits someone with a baton. Gualtieri said the task force never considered asking agencies to report all uses of force because it would create a burden — and because, he said, the motivation for the project was that “people want to know how many people cops are killing.”

Some criminal justice experts and civil rights advocates say that participation should be mandatory or that the federal government should withhold grants to agencies that do not participate. Bree Spencer with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups, said the voluntary nature of the program is a fundamental flaw.

“This is the type of data that the public has a right to, to understand how police are using their time day to day, particularly when it involves use of force,” she said. “This should be mandatory.”

Any use-of-force accounting should also be transparent on a local level and include a broad definition of force, she said, not the narrow definition used by the FBI program. As a template for a better public program, she cited the Leadership Conference’s Accountable Now project, which collects and publishes use-of-force data from individual agencies via public records requests.

“Harm is harm,” Spencer said. “And if armed agents of the state, through over-policing and aggressive engagement with members of the public are causing harm and making our communities less safe, then the public needs to know that.”

The Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson said the department’s ultimate goal is to publish agency-by-agency data on its website but doesn’t have a timetable for when that will happen. The data will also be available through public records requests.

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