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Police Use of Force

Police Use of Force

Portland State University

Synopsis: A reliable, valid metric to assess use of force incidents both within and between agencies is needed to be consistent with evidence-based policing approaches.


Community Need

There has been increased attention put on police use of force in recent years. This is evidenced by the increasing number of agencies being investigated by the Department of Justice, intensified public scrutiny by the media and civil rights activists, and civil rights lawsuits. Given this attention, there is a growing interest by police leaders to using use of force data and analysis to better inform police practices. While there is growing recognition regarding the necessity of improving how force is analyzed and ultimately managed, as of yet there is no national consensus on how use of force data is collected, recorded or what tools are appropriate for examining force. In fact, the DOJ has explicitly refused to provide an indepth explanation of their methodology to researchers wishing to replicate their work. Interestingly, the DOJ, which aggressively advocates for evidence-based practices in law enforcement, has failed to provide guidance in the area of data collection and analysis involving police use of force.


Statistical evidence will be needed for police agencies to develop strategies aimed at improving how they manage use of force. If an agency wishes to use data to measure improvement in not just the total number of force incidents but also in how force is used relative to constitutional factors, simply counting the number and types of force while using a qualitative review of individual reports may not provide sufficient nuance to identify trends as they develop. If an agency trains officers to utilize more de-escalation techniques or if the agency increases changes around how it trains use of force relative to constitutional factors, it will be necessary to have data collection systems which reliably capture this information. This project argues that developing more consistent and reliable use of force standards is an important component to improving how police use force. This project proposes a new system for coding use of force incidents that will improve upon existing systems.


Primary Research Question(S)

Can a system for coding use of force incidents be created that will improve upon existing systems and will the instrument created be reliable and practical in a manner consistent with current police practices?

Research Design

The system proposed in this project is a “Constitutional Force Analysis” (CFA), which utilizes legal criteria using a methodology similar to that employed by other researchers. However, where their work relied primarily upon attributing constitutional relevance to pre-determined administratively recorded factors, this project seeks to define and measure the reliable coding of a broad array of constitutional factors not captured by “Force Factor Analysis.” This system adds more specific, constitutionally relevant variables. The author created a form with several sections. Coders were instructed to code 50 different reports of use of force from the Portland Police Bureau. A variety of analyses designed to quantify the amount of agreement between different coders are used in this document.


Coders were unable to code some variables with sufficient reliability. The constitutional factors developed for this system were based upon the author’s understanding of constitutional law regarding police use of force. Reliability is a necessary but insufficient measure for a system evaluating use of force.


Research Findings

Improved analysis of use of force: Currently systems of data collection fail to account for a number of important constitutional factors, fail to provide structure to the process by which data is gathered and generally fail to provide any sequencing to the use of force. This system addresses these failures.

Improved quality control: This system will provide a structured checklist for the analysis of force usage. This structure will improve the consistency of force reviews.

Can improve the debrief process: This system, if incorporated with a force debrief, can provided structure to the discussion of how to better employ and document force.

Main Implications

The use of force by police has real, often tragic, consequences. The community deserves more than an adoption of measures that have no actual evidence of their value. Developing a reliable, valid metric to assess both within and between agencies should be a priority for both local and federal law enforcement. Such an approach is consistent with the evidence-based policing approaches advocated by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.


Stewart, G. (2013). A Quantitative Method for the Analysis of Constitutional Factors in Police Use of Force.