Police Chiefs' Blog: Cdr Matt Twist - Publishing use of force data is a great step forward for police transparency August 2017
Police are charged with maintaining order and keeping people safe. In fulfilling those duties, they will sometimes need to use force on behalf of the state to protect the public and themselves form harm.
From this summer, police forces will be regularly publishing data on their officers’ use of force - whether that is a form of restraint, handcuffing, use of a Taser or irritant spray.
I hope that having this data publically available will strengthen the vital relationship between the police and the public that is at the heart of our model of policing by consent. It will also inform decisions about which tactics and equipment are most effective and enable us to put incidents into context.
As several forces have already published their data and more will over August, I wanted answer some of the most common questions I’m asked.
Firstly why are we doing it?
Put simply, because the public have a right to know. While most people understand why police have to use force sometimes to keep people safe, I think they also expect that we collect and analyse that information about how it is used – and that we make that available to them.
Police officers walk towards danger when others walk away, thinking and acting quickly to keep people safe. This data will give insight into what being a police officer involves and the challenges they deal with on society’s behalf, including providing numbers on how many officers are assaulted in the course of their duties.
Officers are trained to use to force proportionately, lawfully and only when absolutely necessary. This data will help us ensure that this is the case, and that our training, tactics and equipment are fit for purpose. Together with body worn video, it should also show the thousands of cases where a use of force deescalates a situation and protects the public.
What data is captured?
Deciding what to record has been complex. For example, in the vast majority of cases handcuffing is compliant, however, it is still a use of force and officers need to account for it. Equally in a public order situation, officers won’t be able to record every push or restraint that they use against a large crowd so they will need to offer their best estimate of events.
We have decided that to give a full picture we need to collect and publish all instances of handcuffing; restraint such as applying pressure to pressure points, a push or a strike; use of police dogs; use of baton; irritant spray; limb and body restraints; spit guard; shield; Taser; attenuating energy projectiles (AEPs) - more commonly known as rubber bullets ; and firearms.
How is this data collected and published?
Police officers have always held information about how and why they used force in a particular situation but this was contained in evidence notes rather than a consistent, formal procedure across all forces.
We have now provided forces with a template form, which has been designed to collect the right information without being unduly bureaucratic for officers. The form consolidates other additional forms of monitoring, such as Taser recording.
In my own force, we have developed a computer based e-form that officers can use to complete the form, aiming for a ‘gold standard’ of about two to three minutes to complete for the average incident, which can also be done on the go. I know other forces have similar approaches and the process of recording can be very quick.
At Chief Constables Council in January, forces agreed to publish data on their websites quarterly as well as providing it to the Home Office annual data requirement. It is for individual forces to determine how best they present that data to their communities.
What analysis will be available?
We’ve engaged experts from the College of Policing, Home Office, Exeter University and UCL to do in-depth analysis once we have a full year’s worth of data.
Recording and publishing all of this data is a significant change for forces. They use a range of recording systems and are starting from different baselines. This means that there will be data gaps for at least the first year and comparisons between forces are likely to be unreliable, unfair and misleading. It will not be accurate to simply aggregate force data returns for a national picture due to inconsistencies in the early stages and lack of baseline data to compare with. It will probably take a number of years before accurate, meaningful conclusions can be confidently drawn.
When I spoke to national journalists about this project recently, they quizzed me on why we haven’t mandated forces to publish at the same time in exactly the same way to make it easier to interpret and why we haven’t delayed publication until we have national analysis. Ultimately, it’s because we chose to get local data out to communities quickly rather waiting for 12 months to see that data along with a national picture. This way we can monitor how forces progress over the first year and address any areas for improvement as we go.
This is the first phase of a complex project. There have been challenges and there are caveats about how the data can be interpreted. But this is also a real step forward in in police transparency.
We will be working hard to improve the quality and consistency of the data and derive meaning from it that will help us improve the way we police.
Commander Matt Twist, NPCC Lead for Restraint and Self-defence
Forces that have so far indicated they have published their data: Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, British Transport Police, Thames Valley Police, Hampshire, South Wales, Nottinghamshire, Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Metropolitan Police, North Yorkshire and Derbyshire.