This is the second of a two-part series. Part one can be found here.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Most Rhode Island police departments fall below a statewide average when it comes to police use of force, but a lack of standardized reporting across jurisdictions makes it challenging to track the issue locally.
A Target 12 analysis of more than 100 annual reports across 39 local and state police departments shows force was used in about 5.2% of all arrests over the last three years. In 2019, only seven departments exceeded that level.
Providence, the state’s largest police force, leads the way. Use of force reports represented 15% of the department’s arrests in 2019.
The other above-average communities included some urban areas, such as East Providence (11.3%), Pawtucket (7.4%) and Newport (6.7%), along with a few smaller communities – West Greenwich (8.3%), Hopkinton (8.2%) and Scituate (6.5%), where use of force can appear greater because overall arrests are so low.
The remaining 31 municipalities – along with the R.I. State Police – reported rates below the statewide average.
Overall, the relatively low number of use of force reports across most communities is encouraging to some law enforcement leaders.
Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, argues Rhode Island is a regional leader when it comes to de-escalation training and bans on certain police tactics that have come under nationwide scrutiny since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“We’ve implemented these things going back to 2009,” said Wordell, whose association represents law enforcement leaders across the state.
But Wordell is quick to acknowledge that it’s challenging to keep track of police use of force across departments because there’s no centralized database in Rhode Island.
Discrepancies in reporting standards between jurisdictions also make it tough for one municipality to understand where they stand against others. In Providence, for example, the department reports total number of officers who used force, which could inflate its numbers in comparison to other departments. Other communities only report individual uses of force, regardless of how many officers were involved. Some report both.
The term “use of force” is broad, but typically includes actions like firing a weapon, drawing a gun, shooting a taser, pepper spraying someone in the eyes or slamming a person to the ground. (When applicable, Target 12 removed all use of force reports involving officers having to euthanize sick or wounded animals.)
Target 12 spent two months reviewing annual reports from individual departments and was able to identify at least 8,635 instances where force was used from 2015 to 2019.
All but four were deemed justified, which was the focus of a Target 12 investigation Monday.
“When you first gave me the numbers, shame on us a little bit because we don’t track it statewide,” Wordell said after reviewing Target 12’s findings. “We’re working on that for a record management system to be able to do that.”
Wordell has been advocating for legislation that would create a statewide system to keep track of various law enforcement information, including use of force cases across departments, which he said could help boost transparency.
Rhode Island is hardly alone when it comes to a lack of record-keeping, which represents a nationwide issue highlighted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2018.
“Accurate and comprehensive data regarding police uses of force is generally not available to police departments or the American public,” Commission Chair Catherine Lhamon wrote in police use of force briefing sent to President Donald Trump at the time.
“No comprehensive national database exists that captures police uses of force,” she added.
Beyond use of force reports – which are self-reported by officers – Wordell also noted that excessive use of force reports by civilians are relatively scant in Rhode Island.
“Those numbers are very low,” Wordell said.
But like the self-reported use of force reports, there is also no centralized database for civilian complaints, either. And without an easy way for members of the public to see such numbers, the Commission on Civil Rights warns law enforcement runs the risk of fueling public distrust, especially when it comes to use of force.
“Without accurate data on police use of force, allegations by community members and actions by law enforcement not only sow distrust among communities and the police, making policing more dangerous, but also jeopardize public safety,” commissioners wrote in the report.
Wordell said he recognized there’s been growing mistrust between the public and police in recent years, saying law enforcement needs to do its part to try and mend the gap.
“We’ve come full circle, unfortunately,” Wordell said, noting how law enforcement and first responders were held in such high regard following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“Now, again because of some actions of law enforcement interacting with the public, we are certainly far from that,” he added. “We need to work to gain that respect with the public.”
Steph Machado contributed to this report.