Bellingham Police use of force statistics focus could obstruct reductions in use of force / Noisy Waters Northwest

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Click the screenshot of a YouTube video image of BPD Lieutenant Don Almer in his police uniform speaking to BPD Outreach Officer Jon Knutsen to access the video on YouTube

July 11, 2020  Dena Jensen

A July 8, 2020 Bellingham Police Perspective Project Video, is a good example of recent public relations material going out to the community from law enforcement. It seems beneficial to examine such communications as we seek to make strides toward reducing police use of force and discriminatory practices.

I will deal with one particular issue in the July 8, video in this post.

In the video, Bellingham Police Department (BPD) Lieutenant Don Almer, in his discussion with BPD Outreach Officer Jon Knutsen, highlighted the fact that Bellingham Police officers only use force on an average of .4% of the time. This figure has also been highlighted specifically to officials recently, during a presentation by Lieutenant Almer at a June 22, 2020 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting.

In BPD’s 2018 report, “Bellingham Police Department Use of Force Statistics” , the use of force figure that year was .036%. That statistic was reinforced on 4 out of 6 pages in that report. This way of viewing use of force seems reassuring, and that such a percentage wouldn’t provide us with much to even bother looking into.

But meanwhile, what is also true is that in that year of 2018 there were 242 use of force incidents recorded by BPD. This means that in 2018, force was employed by Bellingham Police officers at a rate of somewhat more than once every other day, or around .68 incidents of use of force a day during that year.

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Screenshot of one of the mentions, placed on 4 pages out of 6, of the 0.36% figure of BPD use of force incidents in 2018, in their 2018 Bellingham Police Department Use of Force Statistics report

BPD officers had 67,261 service calls that year, and I would venture that the nature of the vast majority of those calls should not prompt us to believe they should result in requiring officers to use force. It also seems that communities should aspire to ensuring that any enforcement agencies have all the resources they need that will allow them to eliminate use of force nearly entirely. By presenting the statistic which Officer Almer does in the video, it makes it seem like this is what is happening, but in fact, use of force by BPD has not been nearly eliminated. Another way we can look at it is that that there are incidents of individuals being forcibly handled in some way by BPD officers, at a rate of over four times a week during the course of a year like 2018.

Here are Lieutenant Almer’s remarks about use of force at the 00:03:30 mark on the video:

“I’ve done thorough statistical analysis of our data since 2016. 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and the statistical average is, on average the officers are using force about .4% of the time. But let’s say if you have 50,000 police calls that our officers respond to, if, in those 50,000 police calls, we’re using force less than one half of one percent. And if we really want to get into the weeds with that, that’s just assuming one officer is contacting one person in all of those calls. So, let’s say with those 50,000 calls we’re contacting two people on each call. Again, overly simplistic. But now we’ve had 100,000 contacts with the public and we’ve only had to use force .4% of the time.”

That’s a lot of elaborating on this comparison of how many times out of every single service action that officers end up engaging in using force, when this will not be a comparison that helps us figure out what officers need in order to to do things differently or approach things differently, so that they use force less often.

Additionally, Lieutenant Almer is doing this during a video which is focusing on use of force from a police perspective. That he, along with police use of force reports, are focusing on emphasizing statistics to make the amount of use of force seem insignificant, rather than on how to reduce use of force more, seems telling in regard to the mindset of BPD.

One thing Lieutenant Almer’s July 8 statistics do help indicate, however, is that there are perhaps thousands of service calls to which officers annually respond, which we can possibly help reduce or eliminate for them, should we bring various types of calls under the purview of other organizations or agencies that are more well-suited to properly addressing them.