To the editor:
Thank you for your article titled “Riley County police find no ‘concerning patterns of racial bias’ when using force” and your editorial titled, “A pattern of serious concern.” Your interest in this important topic is appreciated. However, I do feel the need to clarify a few points that were in the article and emphasize some of my own.
The first point I would like to make is how unusual it is that a police department voluntarily examines race and use of force. Typically, departments are forced to track and report race-related data after a highly controversial incident. The 2020 Use of Force Report represents the third year in a row that the RCPD has conducted this analysis and it’s worth noting that this was well before the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. As a publicly-funded law enforcement agency the RCPD has once again been proactively transparent on something, in this case the initiative to seriously evaluate its conduct in the field related to this often-controversial topic and then go public with the results.
Your article created charts not found in the RCPD’s report that emphasized the numerical disparity in force incidents between Black/African Americans and White/Caucasians. However, one year of data does not constitute a trend and raw disparity data shown in the chart your paper created does not make any attempt to account for the human behaviors that lead police and corrections officers to use force, as we did in our report. Each use of force incident requires an in-depth analysis to evaluate our officers’ actions in view of specific citizen behavior and then determine if we see substantial differences by the race of persons involved. The resources used include officers who deliver force training, members of the Training Unit, officer statements, review of body worn camera and in-car camera footage, Department policy, state law, case law and the officers’ chain of command until it reaches me for final review. None of these steps are “check boxes” and involved thousands of staff hours to complete.
Your article indicated that RCPD recorded force that was “higher than necessary.” This is a misinterpretation. Every reported use of force is reviewed by seven levels of supervisors including myself. In 2020, every use of force was found to be lawful and appropriate. Instead, RCPD’s personnel evaluated the Department’s use of force in view a training tool called the force continuum. The force continuum acts a general guide by breaking threats/resistance and officer’s force into categories from high levels to low. Officers are taught that a certain level of threat/resistance should generally result in the application of a certain level of force. However, exceptions are made as the circumstances dictate. Thus, when the report mentions “higher” force it is referring to force that, though lawful, was a level higher than what is called for on the face of the force continuum. The question of this analysis was whether or not officer’s force varied substantially by race in view of the force continuum. Although the 2020 use of force data showed some signs of variance by race, the variance did not appear pronounced and it was based on limited data sets (again, only one year’s worth of data). A more comprehensive view through three years of combined data did not reveal substantial differences in RCPD’s use of force by race.
This does not mean that the RCPD is claiming it is free of racial bias. Rather, the Department takes this matter so seriously it is willing to evaluate and analyze our officers’ actions, and publish the results. Evaluating use of force data is one part of RCPD’s commitment toward building a comprehensive program to produce fair and impartial policing (see Dr. Lorie Fridell’s work) that results in the public belief that our Department engages in legitimate policing. In fact, in late 2019 the RCPD and the Coalition for Equal Justice formed a Fair and Impartial Policing Working Group which makes recommendations to me. We hope this report enhances the working group’s perception that the RCPD’s efforts are legitimate. I look forward to their thoughts on this matter.
Director Dennis P. Butler
Riley County Police Department