A call for greater transparency
Police use of force has sparked an intense debate across America, including in our state Capitol. This policy brief answers a simple question: How common is police use of force in some of the larger police departments in Wisconsin?
We focus only on larger departments because there is little information available on smaller law enforcement agencies’ use of force and no comprehensive statewide database — deficiencies that state legislators should immediately rectify.
Both Gov. Tony Evers and State Sen. Van Wanggaard have proposed legislation that would require police departments to report to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) all use-of-force incidents in which a police officer shoots a civilian or discharges a firearm at a civilian and incidents in which a civilian suffers great bodily harm. DOJ would be required to collect, organize and publish an annual report of these incidents on its website.
While these proposals would be an improvement, they would leave the vast majority of police use-of-force incidents unreported. Our research shows that the majority of use-of-force incidents involve physical contact between police officers and citizens or the use of tasers and pepper spray. Although these types of force rarely result in death or serious bodily harm, they do indicate the level of conflict between a community and its police department. More detailed reporting on all use-of-force incidents would identify areas where police departments can improve interactions and increase public confidence in its practices.
The Badger Institute recommends that the state require all law enforcement entities to track and report instances of use of force just as they are required to track and report the number of arrests.
Both citizens and police departments would then be able to compare the frequency and nature of use of force — information that would likely be of considerable interest.
In the meantime, in the absence of a statewide statistics, the Badger Institute developed a picture of use of force in three of the state’s largest departments: Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay. We also gathered publicly available information on the frequency of complaints in one of those three municipalities, Milwaukee.
An essential finding: The frequency of any sort of use of force during arrests in Wisconsin’s largest cities — Madison and Milwaukee — is almost identical: one in every 29 or 30 arrests. It is difficult to compare use of force in Green Bay because of the way that department tracks and reports data.
All three cities report a striking similarity in rates of the use of bodily force, by far the most common use of force. In Madison, 71.5% of use-of-force incidents involve bodily force only, in Green Bay it’s 72.7% and in Milwaukee it’s 72.5%.
Some policymakers might feel that the overall frequency — once in every 29 or 30 arrests — is misleading because very few police interactions with citizens result in arrests. Most interactions, some 95% of all calls for service in Madison, for instance, are routine interviews or responses to complaints that do not result in arrests. These are routine interactions that very, very rarely result in force.
We provide statistics on those interactions as well.
There is a nationwide debate today over the use of force and when it is justified. We do not attempt to analyze the propriety of police procedures regarding use of force and what percentage of time use of force is justified in Wisconsin. That would require extensive investigation of hundreds of arrests and inherently subjective conclusions based on what is often incomplete information.
We do, however, break down statistics into categories such as bodily force to the use of a taser, baton, gun or canine. And we do provide some statewide information about officer-involved shootings — which are both rare and a small percentage of all uses of force but, for obvious reasons, garner the most media attention.
We hope the statistics alleviate some of the distrust surrounding routine interactions with police and provide perspective on the prevalence of use of force beyond incidents seen online or on TV.