By Chris Reed.
California won national applause in September when Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the implementation of a new online system under which all California police agencies will have to report not just fatal police shootings but encounters in which civilians are seriously injured by officers trying to subdue them. The reporting program is named URSUS in a nod to the grizzly bear, California’s official animal.
Harris received highly positive coverage in such publications as U.S. News and World Report for her declaration that it was long overdue for there to be “an honest, transparent and data-driven conversation about police use of force.” U.S. News also depicted Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, as a visionary for coming up with the idea in 2014.
Harris and Rodriguez may end up amply deserving credit if they do usher in a new era in which statistical tools illustrate the extent of police misconduct. But little of the coverage of URSUS focuses on the question of incentives within law enforcement agencies. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and many others have written over the past 40 years, police of all ranks have many reasons to create tidy narratives about their actions.
Officers have an incentive to not report their violent incidents and to depict injuries suffered by suspects as not their fault; the other officers who witness such violence have an incentive to not report or to inaccurately depict such injuries because of a police culture with a still-strong “code of silence”; and police chiefs and top police brass have an incentive to not accurately report incidents within their ranks because of concerns on how it would reflect on them and their departments.
This long history of police not acting to limit misconduct is a factor in the huge gap between African American and white perceptions of police misconduct, according to recent research by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice.
State law requiring reporting of fatalities flouted in L.A.
Now the San Francisco Chronicle, analyzing research done by Texas State University covering the years from 2006-2015, has given an example of how the incentives for police to resist oversight have resulted in a lax police culture in California.
A state law adopted long before the controversies over police killings in New York City, Baltimore and Cleveland requires local law enforcement to report fatal shootings by officers to the state government.
But the Chronicle’s analysis found it to be broadly ignored over the 10 years of data compiled by Texas State University researchers. Some of the key findings:
- At least 439 fatal police shootings were never reported to the state, 30 percent of the estimated 1,480 such killings over the decade.
- The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the largest sheriff’s department in the United States, didn’t report at least 34 fatal shootings; the Los Angeles Police Department didn’t report at least 21; and the Fresno Police Department didn’t report at least 24.
The Chronicle’s data suggests California law enforcement agencies may be getting better at reporting such fatal shootings. The 10-year average of unreported police killings was 30 percent. Last year, the percentage appears to be closer to 25 percent, though exact numbers are not yet available.
But in San Francisco, the percentage of unreported police killings in 2015 was 100 percent. The Chronicle said city police officials didn’t notify the state of any of the six police killings last year.