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Pinellas County Sheriff's Office first in Florida to join FBI program tracking use-of-force incidents

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the project “un?precedented.”
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the project “un?precedented.”
Published Sep. 2, 2017

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is leading the way in Florida on a national effort to document every time a law enforcement officer shoots at someone or uses force that results in serious injury or death.

The FBI's National Use-of-Force data-collection program will help law enforcement and the public better understand geographic and demographic trends in use-of-force incidents, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who worked on the task force that created the program. His agency is one of 64 nationwide and the only one in Florida enrolled in the six-month pilot program, which started July 1. Other state agencies are in the process of registering, he said.

"It's really a groundbreaking, novel, unprecedented effort," Gualtieri said, "to come up with something that agencies would agree to and participate in so that there can be a national picture accurately depicting use of force by law enforcement."

The FBI worked with local, state, tribal and federal agencies to get the pilot off the ground. Gualtieri, who represented the Major County Sheriffs of America during the conversations, said the program will focus on three categories: any time officers shoot at someone, any time the use of force results in serious bodily injury or any time it results in death. The federal government defines serious bodily injury as involving "substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty."

Agencies will also turn over more granular data, such as the size and race of the offender and officer, Gualtieri said.

The goal is to compile the data into a publicly available report. There are a few data sets already available that attempt to capture some of this data, Gualtieri said, mentioning the Washington Post's fatal police shootings database. There are also federal regulations to report deaths in custody and law enforcement officers who were injured or killed.

But, he said, "there should be some way the story is told that the public has access to and an accurate narrative about what law enforcement is doing and what law enforcement is not doing."

His comments are reminiscent of those made last October by former FBI director James Comey, who said the lack of data and images of deadly encounters with law enforcement have contributed to a narrative that "biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates." Comey, speaking at an International Association of Chiefs of Police gathering, went on to say Americans "actually have no idea if the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down or sideways over the last three years, five years, 10 years," news outlets reported.

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Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who announced the program about the same time, called the data "essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations.''

The FBI declined to comment for this report.

There's little debate over whether the information would be useful. Sean Goodison, the deputy director and senior research criminologist at the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said he couldn't imagine a law enforcement stakeholder that wouldn't benefit. The forum is listed on the FBI's website as an organization that partnered with the agency to help create the program.

The challenge lies in getting all 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide on board. While most agencies keep their own use-of-force data, the federal government can't require them to report it to the FBI. Submitting the data adds another demand on agencies that are often inundated with requests, whether from the government, the public or internally, Goodison said.

Beyond the reporting challenges, finding a way to standardize the data to the point that agencies can be compared to one another will likely be difficult.

"When you have no national snapshot, every agency is working in its own little silo," Goodison said.

Despite the challenges, Goodison said he's optimistic the program can work. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of crime statistics agencies already submit to the FBI, the use-of-force data set will be small, especially for the roughly half of agencies that have 10 or fewer sworn officers.

Since the pilot started, the Sheriff's Office hasn't had any uses of force that meet the reporting thresholds, Gualtieri said.

Interest in the program varies for other major agencies in the Tampa Bay area. Spokespeople for both Tampa and St. Petersburg police said agency leaders were unaware of the program. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office isn't participating, said spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Other Tampa Bay area agencies are considering joining the pilot and looking into how the reporting would fit into their work flows. Pasco County Sheriff's Office officials are reviewing whether there would be additional staffing, equipment and more training needed to participate, said spokesman Kevin Doll.

Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said he intends to participate and is researching the best way to report the data. The Police Department generally doesn't have many incidents that meet the criteria and hasn't had any since the pilot started, so he doesn't feel much urgency at this point. But Slaughter emphasized the importance of the program as a way to examine trends and find areas of improvement, referencing a quote from another police chief he heard at a conference.

"Data creates questions. It doesn't answer them," he said. "I think that's the way you've got to look at it."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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