Police in Pennsylvania slow to adopt new use-of-force rules, study finds

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

A new NAACP study examining the policies and practices of the 39 law enforcement agencies in Bucks County reveals gaps in how those departments track complaints against officers, traffic stops, and use of force across the county.

The study, published Thursday, measures the policing agencies against 14 standards that the organization developed from local, state, and national best practices. The NAACP worked closely with the Police Chiefs’ Association of Bucks County, which helped promote participation in the project among departments in the county.

Alongside the policy analysis, the report also highlights racial disparities in how the agencies police their communities.

The Bucks NAACP found many of the county’s police agencies did not meet the standards. Among them: About 46% of the departments had not fully adopted the use-of-force guidelines that the association published in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, or did not provide enough information to determine compliance.

The group also found Black people in Bucks County are arrested at a rate disproportionate to their population, a baseline metric the chiefs’ association contests.

But perhaps most illuminating, the organization said, were the barriers volunteers faced to getting the records they sought. Collecting the data took nearly two years. In many areas, the group could not make conclusions because police agencies either could not or did not provide records.

This inconsistency is not unique to Bucks County. There are more than a thousand policing agencies in Pennsylvania, each with its own policies and practices. Many of the departments lack the staff that larger agencies use to collect data on their interactions with the public.

“We were ambitious. We were looking at the entire county,” said Helen Tai, one of the volunteers behind the study, “but even in the township where I live, which is like population of under 9,000 people, if I didn’t have the NAACP calling card, and I went to the police and tried to get this information, there’s no way I would have gotten it.”

The group began the project in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. People in Bucks County were asking “What are we doing here in the county to prevent something like this from happening?” said Kayma Sherman-Knuckles, who led the NAACP committee that conducted the study.

The group first reached out to county-level officials in the district attorney’s and commissioners offices but quickly discovered they would have to approach individual departments to answer the question.

“We wanted to look to make sure that we had the data to support the information needed to ensure that a tragedy like this didn’t happen here,” Sherman-Knuckles said. “But it was impossible. So, we had no way but to go through step by step.”

The Bucks NAACP met with every police chief in the county and asked each of the 39 departments — ranging from larger municipal agencies such as Bensalem and to the tiny, four-person Hulmeville Borough — for nine categories of documents: arrests; budgets and staffing; complaints against officers; hiring and promotion policies; traffic stop data; training policies; union contracts; use-of-force data; and use-of-force policies.

The chiefs were for the most part receptive, said Sherman-Knuckles, who conducted many of the meetings.

Nevertheless, the departments’ responses to the requests were mixed.

Except for arrest data, which researchers obtained for all departments from a State Police database, each request category lacks records from at least one department.

  • February 1, 2024
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