'Improper' use-of-force findings rare among police departments

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department is not unique among law enforcement agencies in rarely finding fault with officers' use of force. Its mandatory review process, however, is more comprehensive than a number of departments across Missouri.

For many years, police departments in the U.S. did not track and report on use of force or citizen complaints, but in recent years most departments have at least started to do so, said Kenneth Adams, professor of science and public policy at the University of Central Florida and a use-of-force researcher.

The challenge for police departments is that the review process places increasing administrative and investigative demands on the agencies.

The quality of reviews varies widely. From interviews with police departments throughout Missouri, it is clear that the Columbia Police Department use-of-force review process is similar to that of many other law enforcement agencies in the area, and at times it is even more formalized.

For example, some departments have implemented a professional standards unit similar to the one in Columbia, or they use a similar internal investigations process. In Springfield, which reviews use of force through internal investigations, only one of the 256 reports of use of force in 2008 was found to be improper. Other departments either would not or could not provide similar statistics.

For example, the St. Louis and Kansas City police departments both maintain professional standards offices but did not respond to requests for statistics.

Other departments don’t label each use of force as proper or improper. In Jefferson City, the police department monitors officers’ use of force but will only review a case in-depth if a citizen files a complaint, said Lt. Robert Clark, professional standards officer.

Similarly, the Independence Police Department sends each use-of-force report up the chain of command but doesn’t officially label proper or improper use, Capt. Terry Storey said. The department does have a professional standards unit to review citizen complaints.

Some departments don’t even refer to it as use of force.  In St. Joseph, for example, it is called “defensive control tactics,” said Sgt. Chris Black, professional standards officer.

In St. Charles, where use-of-force incidents are referred to as “subject control," Lt. David Simpson of the Office of Professional Standards said he can't remember ever seeing an improper finding. 

"I would not expect to see an improper (finding)," he said. "They would handle that before it went up the chain of command."

Adams said such a situation is fairly typical in police departments across the country. "Even in more formalized arrangements, you'll be lucky if you get one (improper finding) a year."

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