Law enforcement nationwide track 'use of force' differently; Based on self-reporting by officers

DENVER - The use of force by law enforcement has no uniformity from one department to another, a Denver7 investigation has discovered.

Police departments and sheriff's offices are not required to keep the same type of data on how their officers and deputies use force.

Denver7 and Scripps investigative units nationwide requested data from dozens of law enforcement agencies detailing what type of force is used and how often it is used.

The statistics are based on officers and deputies that self-report the force as required by department policies.

"It's gotten to the point where it seems like the public sees a use of force and automatically assumes the officer is wrong," said Denver Police Deputy Chief Matt Murray. "Officers are obligated to report a 'use of force' anytime they use force."

Denver Police officers have to fill out this "use of force" report anytime they use force. Of the Colorado departments that provided statistics to Denver7 and Scripps investigative units, Denver's tracking was the most specific.

"It's probably too much because we break down so far that it's difficult to always get the exact right thing covered, but it does do a fairly good job of capturing force," said Murray.

"I guess it's hard to break down in every situation into just checking a box," said Brandon Schreiber, who recently filed an excessive force complaint against Denver Police.

Schreiber was with his brother for a bachelor party at the 1UP bar in LoDo in July 2014.

Schreiber's brother had fallen asleep at the bar and Schreiber was trying to convince Officer Choice Johnson, who had the brother handcuffed, not to take him to a detox center.

A city surveillance camera was recording as Johnson is seen pushing Schreiber in the chest with both hands while Schreiber had his hands in his pockets. He was pushed up a staircase and said Johnson started punching him.

"An officer who is very well-trained to manage situations far more intense than that should not need to use that type of force," said Schreiber.

Johnson was suspended 30 days for his use of force, but that punishment was overturned in August. In early September, the city appealed that decision. An ultimate ruling on this appeal likely won't be decided until March or April 2016.

Johnson reported his use of force on this night, but twice previously there were complaints against him and it was determined that he failed to report the use of force.

The statistics provided to Denver7 are only as good as trusting that the officers and deputies admit and report each use of force.

"You should take very little from those statistics," said Siddartha Rathod, Brandon's attorney. "The statistics that you're looking at are skewed in that they show only what the officers are reporting."

Rathod's law firm has successfully sued the city on behalf of multiple clients complaining of excessive force.

In 2014, the city of Denver paid out $9 million in settlements of excessive force cases.

"The reality is, there are officers who use force inappropriately and we need to deal with that," said Murray. "I've done the math and I can tell you that it's two one-hundredths of one percent of our calls (that) actually results in a use of force, and even fewer of those results in a complaint."

It's actually a little bit more than .0002, but still less than one percent. Based on 500,000 calls in 2014, Denver officers reported 665 uses of force, which is .001.

Denver "Use of Force" stats 2010-2015

Officers may report multiple uses of force per incident. In fact, Denver averages about five uses of force per reported incident.

"You just buck up your arms and say, 'I'm not going, you're going to have to take me,' and I grab your arm, that's one use of force. You pull back and I have to grab both of your shoulders, that's the second use of force. Then, I have to take you to the ground and you kick at me and an officer sits on your feet, now we're talking two officers and four different types of use of force, when most people just see an incident that had force used," said Murray. "If we can't use force, we may not be able to help people out of the situation that they find themselves in."

Denver 'use of force' complaints by year:

2010 - 136

2011 - 99

2012 - 88

2013 - 88

2014 - 115

2015 - 58 (through 10/29/15)

"You can't assume they were wrong. The use of force may have been totally appropriate," said Murray. "Most people think officers are using force every night, but three in three months would cause us to look more closely at an officer, so force is used a lot less than people think it is."

The other departments that provided statistics to Denver7 were not as specific as Denver's, but that's not to say they're not tracking the data any better or worse.

Arvada Police and Golden Police broke down use of force to about a dozen categories.

Arvada Police use of force 2010-2015

Golden Police use of force 2010-2015

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office considered physical contact as a "Control Hold."

Jefferson County use of force 2010-2015

Only Golden Police and Boulder Police tracked every time an officer took their weapon out of their holster.

"Why does Boulder track when an officer takes their weapon out?" asked Denver7 reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"We started doing this approximately 15 years ago. It was more so the idea for training. We do this and we review the report after to make sure they were acting appropriately," said Boulder Police spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly. "When one of our officers draws their duty weapon, it's because they're clearing a building or they're on a call where it is reported that someone has a weapon."

Boulder Police use of force 2014-2015

Through June 2015, Boulder officers drew their weapons 74 times. In 2014, Boulder officers drew their weapons 175 times, with three classified as "not effective."

"In those three instances, drawing their duty weapon was not enough. That doesn't mean that they had to escalate to something higher or more extreme, it just means that they needed to use another tactic."

Just like every other department, Boulder's statistics are based on self-reporting.

"These statistics are based on the officers, these are not statistics we keep because we have received complaints from the community."

The president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police told Scripps investigators that there should be a national database for consistent use of force reporting.

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