Crime & Justice

California launches effort to track police shootings, other uses of force

A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Under AB 71, which passed the legislature last year, police agencies throughout the state must report use of force data annually to a public database.
A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Under AB 71, which passed the legislature last year, police agencies throughout the state must report use of force data annually to a public database.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The California Department of Justice Thursday launched a new database that’s expected to shed new light on police shootings in the state.

The database is the result of a new state law that requires police agencies in California to report on all shootings and serious uses of force by officers annually to the State Department of Justice, starting in January. The public will also be able to view the data beginning in January.

Tuesday's launch is a beta system that's being released in advance of the first reporting deadline in January for 2016 statistics.

There are more than 800 law enforcement agencies in California. Until now, information on police shootings from those agencies was scattered and incomplete. Departments, for example, were required to report fatal shootings, but not whether the person was armed or mentally ill.

“As a country, we must engage in an honest, transparent and data-driven conversation about police use of force,” said Attorney General Harris in a statement. “I am proud that California continues to lead the nation in the adoption of technology and data to improve our criminal justice system and keep our streets safe.”

The online platform, nicknamed URSUS, can be accessed by any law enforcement agency in the state to report use of force data in an all-digital format, rather than by using a lengthy paper form. Each department must report all shootings, along with information about the circumstances. Police must also report all serious uses of force.

KPCC’s series on police shootings last year helped provide a blueprint for how the database could be set up, according to one California Department of Justice official who worked on the new reporting system. The investigative series, entitled “Officer Involved,” included extensive data reporting on KPCC’s website and on the radio, which aided the department in deciding what questions to ask police agencies and how to arrange the database fields.

Police chiefs supported the passage last year of AB71, the state measure that enacted the new reporting requirements.

“We believe it is a sound practice to gather and report use of force data and make this information available to the public,” said CA Police Chiefs Association President Chief Ken Corney in a written statement.

Police leaders and civil libertarians alike have said they hope the data will provide valuable information that can be used to reduce use of force, particularly the shooting of unarmed people.

Big police departments already collect most of this data, said Eric Liu, executive director of Bayes Impact, a non-profit tech organization that collaborated with the justice department to develop the reporting tool.

“For the smaller departments, which may not even be collecting use of force data, this can help be that system,” said Liu. “And it’s not only for data collection. We also have analytical tools.”

So a user can go to the site and isolate certain types of data to learn, for example, how many shootings occurred at night or how many shootings involved juveniles.