While there will always be critics, we, as law enforcement leaders, must stand strong and united in our effort to dispel myths, clarify facts, and make sure that the true story of law enforcement and our daily mission to protect and serve our communities are being seen and heard. There has been an increased focus on the collection of data in many disciplines, and law enforcement is no exception. Used correctly, data collected by your agency can aid effective internal and external communication.
Politicians, the media, community members, and many others are calling for a more robust collection of specific data, particularly related to officer-involved shootings, use-of-force incidents, arrests and complaints, and calls for service. You and your agency are likely feeling local pressure, and the pressure is mounting on the national level in the United States.
As we continue to work toward transparency and improved communication with our communities, data can play a vital role. Sharing your agency’s data will serve to not only increase transparency, but also allow you and your agency to provide accurate information. Your agency likely has numerous statistics that speak to the effectiveness of your officers. Many of your statistics will stand on their own, and others can be used together to show the work that your officers are doing.
Law enforcement leaders should share their agencies’ data not only externally, but also internally with officers and staff. If you are collecting and sharing information on the number of arrests, calls for service, complaints and commendations, use-of-force incidents, baseless claims, and claims still under investigation, you will be well positioned to answer any questions from the media, residents, and others in your community. This information will also help your command staff better understand how their daily actions play a role in your agency’s mission and ensure your agency is prepared if there is ever a call for the mandatory collection of data on the state or national level.
In addition to collecting and sharing your agency’s own statistics, it is important that we work to dispel myths and clarify misconceptions about the law enforcement profession. Given the media coverage, many people believe that police shootings are a common occurrence; however, by sharing your own or national U.S. data, you can show that is actually not the case. Of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, only 306 have reported a fatal police shooting this year.1 Oftentimes when you hear about a police-involved shooting, you hear people say that it could have been prevented. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. While any loss of life is, of course, regrettable, there are times when officers must use lethal force in order to protect themselves and their communities.
As law enforcement executives, you are aware that there is also a public misconception that “unarmed” means non-lethal and non-dangerous. However, this could not be further from the truth. If you take a look at the 2013 Uniform Crime Report, it shows that of the 724,149 aggravated assaults reported, 27 percent were committed with only “personal weapons, such as body, fists, or feet.”2
When discussing statistics about law enforcement shootings, the numbers of individuals carrying a toy gun are often disaggregated from numbers of armed individuals. Unfortunately, from even a short distance, a toy gun cannot be distinguished from a real weapon, and, therefore, it is seen as a viable threat to the officer. As law enforcement leaders, it is important to clarify this so that people are able to understand the full spectrum of challenges that your officers and all law enforcement professionals face.
It is also important that we relay to our communities, and others, the challenges we face. For example, law enforcement officers are being called to take on more responsibilities with less resources and manpower. Responding to individuals who have mental illnesses; are under the influence of drugs and alcohol; or have anger management issues is challenging. Often, we are not only operating as law enforcement officers, but also assuming the responsibility of social workers and other community support roles.
When speaking of our challenges in responding to calls for service regarding mental health, you can use the following data:
- Approximately one in five adults in the United States (43.7 million or 18.6 percent) experience mental illness in a given year.3
- The average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 8–10 years.4
- Only 41 percent of adults in the United States with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year.5
As law enforcement officers, we know our primary responsibility is protecting citizens; however, given the current climate, we are also now tasked with defending the profession and clarifying our actions. I hope that you and your agency will speak with your communities, politicians, and the media about the good work you are doing, share the data that further support this, and help clarify misconceptions.
Thank you all for your daily service. The work you do is remarkable. Stay safe. ♦
1Kimberly Kindy et al., “Fatal Police Shootings in 2015 Approaching 400 Nationwide,” The Washington Post, May 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/fatal-police-shootings-in-2015-approaching-400-nationwide/2015/05/30/d322256a-058e-11e5-a428-c984eb077d4e_story.html (accessed June 23, 2015).
2Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2013, Uniform Crime Report, https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013 (accessed June 23, 2015).
3National Institute of Mental Health, “Prevalence: Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among Adults,” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-adults.shtml#sthash.DnwjzCKk.dpuf (accessed June 23, 2015).
4National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health Facts: Children & Teens, https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf (accessed June 23, 2015).
5Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2k12MH_Findings/2k12MH_Findings/NSDUHmhfr2012.htm#sthash.DnwjzCKk.dpuf (accessed June 23, 2015).
Please cite as
Richard Beary, “Sharing the Positive—Using Stats to Dispel Myths and Clarify Facts,” President’s Message, The Police Chief 82 (July 2015): 6.