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Investigation focuses on police use of force

Posted: 7:13 PM, Dec 30, 2015
Updated: 2015-12-30 19:17:24-05

The videos are well known by now seemingly almost played on a loop.

Some Baltimore Police officers are caught using the kind of force that breaks the very fragile relationship between a community and its police department, but even if the department works to take two steps forward from such damaging video, it seems more footage surfaces to push police one step back.

Veteran Baltimore Sergeant Robert Messner was charged in October for allegedly spitting on a man in custody in a video that surfaced earlier that month.

They are among the latest images in a battle Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says is part of a war his department simply must win.

"All the good will you try to put into the bank every day of the week, seven days a week this police department is making deposits in our savings account, deposits in our checking account” Davis said. “[The spitting video] was a big withdraw on our checking account the other day. It was a big withdraw. The only thing we can do in response to it is fight to put that community good will back into that account.”

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It is a fight many departments are engaged in as videos of force or discourtesy swell to the surface not just here in Baltimore, but all around the country.

It’s a national issue throwing the spotlight squarely on use of force statistics, but it is data the federal government does not track.

"In general we have variability across place in terms of how they keep their records; local laws, local policies, so all of these, present challenges in terms of collecting a standardized, uniform collection on use of force," said the chief of the victimization unit of the U.S. Department of Justice Michael Planty.

The DOJ and the FBI are working to standardize the data to better track use of force by America's law enforcement, but right now it is left to each individual department or state to keep numbers.

For five months, Scripps investigative teams dug into the use of force records from police agencies across the country and found nearly half of the police departments showed use of force is actually going down.

It is a trend that does not surprise the President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Richard Beary.

"Use of force against citizens in the United States of America is really very, very miniscule when compared to the number of police citizen contacts that happened every year in this country," he said.

And Baltimore is one of those departments seeing part of that downward trend in specific uses of force such as excessive force and other similar complaints.

According to records obtained from the BPD, excessive force allegations dropped from 300 in 2010 to 96 as of October of this year.

Discourtesy complaints, or disrespect shown by the officer, followed much the same trajectory from 255 in 2010 to just 60 as of October.

Generally, according to the data, Baltimore Police officers do use some kind of force justifiably or not nearly 600 times a year since 2010 with the Taser being used most often to subdue a suspect if needed.

Big picture, that is less than 1 percent of Baltimore's population, a figure the IACP president says the feds will most certainly find across the board if use of force numbers are standardized.

"I am not afraid of the stats. Bring ‘em on,” Beary said “Because when the public sees the millions and millions and millions of citizen contacts that we have and that 99 percent of them no force is used, that is powerful. But we have to have those numbers and be able to back those numbers up."

But standardizing data cannot be a way of dismissing instances and some of the recent images that flood the airwaves.

Commissioner Kevin Davis says the relationship between police and the community is not about percentages; rather it is all about trust.

"They want to believe their police department is doing all the right things and it just takes one unfortunate incident to sway someone's opinion, often times forever about his or her police department."

Of the police departments our Scripps investigative team studied, only about 25 percent showed an increase in use of force.

Most of the departments are in smaller jurisdictions, but do include larger police forces like Dayton, Ohio and the Michigan State Police.

While Baltimore’s general use of force numbers are in a downward trend from 2014, there is not much fluctuation in the past six years.

**Editor's Note: The original version of this story was published Oct. 30, 2015. It has since been updated for republication.

ABC2, along with  21 Scripps investigative teams and our national bureau in Washington, D.C., requested raw numbers from law enforcement agencies across the country.

Our five month investigation found use of force by police is not necessarily on the rise nationwide.

What we've discovered shows there is a critical need for a standardized 'use of force' tracking system.

At stake...the fragile relationship between citizens and police officers sworn to serve and protect. Watch the videos above for more.