Monitoring Use of Force in New Jersey

Recently ProPublica published a map of uses-of-force across different jurisdictions in New Jersey. Such information can be used to monitor whether agencies are overall doing a good or bad job.

I’ve previously discussed the idea of using funnel charts to spot outliers, mostly around homicide rates but the idea is the same when examining any type of rate. For example in another post I illustrated its use for examining rates of officer involved shootings.

Here is another example applying it to lesser uses of force in New Jersey. Below is the rate of use of force reports per the total number of arrests. (Code to replicate at the end of the post.)

The average use of force per arrests in the state is around 3%. So the error bars show relative to the state average. Here is an interactive chart in which you can use tool tips to see the individual jurisdictions.

Now the original press release noted by Seth Stoughton on twitter noted that several towns have ratio’s of black to white use of force that are very high. Scott Wolfe suspected that was partly a function of smaller towns will have more variable rates. Basically as one is comparing the ratio between two rates with error, the error bars around the rate ratio will also be quite large.

Here is the chart showing the same type of funnel around the rate ratio of black to white use-of-force relative to the average over the whole sample (the black percent use of force is 3.2 percent of arrests, and the white percent use of force is 2.4, and the rate ratio between the two is 1.35). I show in the code how I constructed this, which I should write a blog post about itself, but in short there are decisions I could make to make the intervals wider. So the points that are just slightly above a ratio of 2 at around 10,000 arrests are arguably not outliers, those more to the top-right of the plot though are much better evidence. (I’d note that if one group is very small, you could always make these error bars really large, so to construct them you need to make reasonable assumptions about the size of the two groups you are comparing.)

And here is another interactive chart in which you can view the outliers again. The original press release, Millville, Lakewood, and South Orange are noted as outliers. Using arrests as the denominator instead of population, they each have a rate ratio of around 2. In this chart Millville and Lakewood are outside the bounds, but just barely. South Orange is within the bounds. So those aren’t the places I would have called out according to this chart.

That same twitter thread other folks noted the potential reliability/validity of such data (Pete Moskos and Kyle McLean). These charts cannot say why individual agencies are outliers — either high or low. It could be their officers are really using force at different rates, it could also be though they are using different definitions to reporting force. There are also potential other individual explanations that explain the use of force distribution as well as the ratio differences in black vs white — no doubt policing in Princeton vs Camden are substantively different. Also even if all individual agencies are doing well, it does not mean there are no potential problem officers (as noted by David Pyrooz, often a few officers contribute to most UoF).

Despite these limitations, I still think there is utility in this type of monitoring though. It is basically a flag to dig deeper when anomalous patterns are spotted. Those unaccounted for factors contribute to more points being pushed outside of my constructed limits (overdispersion), but more clearly indicate when a pattern is so far outside the norm of what is expected the public deserves some explanation of the pattern. Also it highlights when agencies are potentially doing good, and so can be promoted according to their current practices.

This is a terrific start to effectively monitoring police agencies by ProPublica — state criminal justice agencies should be doing this themselves though.

Here is the code to replicate the analysis.

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Work on Shootings in Dallas Published

I have two recent articles that examine racial bias in decisions to shoot using Dallas Police Data:

  • Wheeler, Andrew P., Scott W. Phillips, John L. Worrall, and Stephen A. Bishopp. (2018) What factors influence an officer’s decision to shoot? The promise and limitations of using public data. Justice Research and Policy Online First.
  • Worrall, John L., Stephen A. Bishopp, Scott C. Zinser, Andrew P. Wheeler, and Scott W. Phillips. (2018) Exploring bias in police shooting decisions with real shoot/don’t shoot cases. Crime & Delinquency Online First.

In each the main innovation is using control cases in which officers pulled their firearm and pointed at a suspect, but decided not to shoot. Using this design we find that officers are less likely to shoot African-Americans, which runs counter to most recent claims of racial bias in police shootings. Besides the simulation data of Lois James, this is a recurring finding in the recent literature — see Roland Fryer’s estimates of this as well (although he uses TASER incidents as control cases).

The reason for the two articles is that me and John through casual conversation found out that we were both pursuing very similar projects, so we decided to collaborate. The paper John is first author examined individual officer level outcomes, and in particular retrieved personnel complaint records for individual officers and found they did correlate with officer decisions to shoot. My article I wanted to intentionally stick with the publicly available open data, as a main point of the work was to articulate where the public data falls short and in turn suggest what information would be needed in such a public database to reasonably identify racial bias. (The public data is aggregated to the incident level — one incident can have multiple officers shooting.) From that I suggest instead of a specific officer involved shooting database, it would make more sense to have officer use of force (at all levels) attached to incident based reporting systems (i.e. NIBRS should have use of force fields included). In a nutshell when examining any particular use-of-force outcome, you need a counter-factual that is that use-of-force could happen, but didn’t. The natural way to do that is to have all levels of force recorded.

Both John and I thought prior work that only looked at shootings was fundamentally flawed. In particular analyses where armed/unarmed was the main outcome among only a set of shooting cases confuses cause and effect, and subsequently cannot be used to determine racial bias in officer decision making. Another way to think about it is that when only looking at shootings you are just limiting yourself to examining potentially bad outcomes — officers often use their discretion for good (the shooting rate in the Dallas data is only 3%). So in this regard databases that only include officer involved shooting cases are fundamentally limited in assessing racial bias — you need cases in which officers did not shoot to assess bias in officer decision making.

This approach of course has some limitations as well. In particular it uses another point of discretion for officers – when to draw their firearm. It could be the case that there is no bias in terms of when officers pull the trigger, but they could be more likely to pull their gun against minorities — our studies cannot deny that interpretation. But, it is also the case other explanations could explain why minorities are more likely to have an officer point a gun at them, such as geographic policing or even more basic that minorities call the police more often. In either case, at the specific decision point of pulling the trigger, there is no evidence of racial bias against minorities in the Dallas data.

I did not post pre-prints of this work due to the potentially contentious nature, as well as the fact that colleagues were working on additional projects based on the same data. I have posted the last version before the copy-edits of the journal for the paper in which I am first author here. If you would like a copy of the article John is first author always feel free to email.