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Report gives first look at use of force by Connecticut police

Pointing to the criminal
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Stock image of police handcuffing a man.

A report by researchers at the University of Connecticut offers new insight into how often police officers use physical force to arrest or detain people.

Since 2019, law enforcement agencies have been required to report all use-of-force incidents, such as hitting, kicking, or tackling people to subdue them, deploying pepper spray, using a stun gun or pointing a firearm.

In a report released Thursday, researchers at UConn offered a first glimpse into what those reports describe, but they cautioned against drawing significant conclusions because of widespread discrepancies in how police reported the data.

Initial figures from about 60 police departments show that officers used force in more than 1,200 incidents over two years, amounting to about 1% of all arrests.

Ken Barone, associate director of UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, said although the new data have limitations, the collection process should signal to the public that Connecticut is making strides toward greater transparency and accountability for law enforcement.

“This report helps to set up questions that we know we need to answer in the future and hopefully gives the public an understanding of the commitment we’ve made in Connecticut to be more transparent around policing data,” said Barone, who is one of the authors of the report.

By the numbers

The average number of submitted reports per department was 21. Agencies in Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford, and the Connecticut State Police, reported the highest number of incidents, though the authors of the report say that isn’t surprising, given the size of the populations they patrol.

About one-third of incidents involved someone who fled from police, and the vast majority was reported to be unarmed, according to the report.

With regard to demographics, close to half of all incidents involved people between the ages of 18 and 30, and the largest share of reported use-of-force incidents involved people police identified as Black (38%), followed by white (33%) and Hispanic (20%).

“When compared to population demographics in Connecticut, this would suggest a significant racial and ethnic disparity in the application of force,” the report reads. “However, if compared to arrest data, the disparity shrinks substantially. In 2019 and 2020, approximately 34% of the people arrested were Black, 21% were Hispanic, and 44% were White.”

In the vast majority of incidents, police reported using verbal commands to try to subdue people. The other most common forms of control methods reported by police were pressure point/control holds and “takedown” maneuvers, in which officers bring the person to the ground.

Researchers determined that at least 16% of officers in 2019 and 12% of officers in 2020 displayed a firearm, but in most cases they didn’t fire it.

Chokeholds, which have engendered significant controversy after the deaths of George Floyd and other people in police custody, were infrequent. Police reported using a chokehold or restraint to the neck area 10 times in two years.

No standardized reporting process

A criminal justice reform bill passed by lawmakers in 2019 requires the state to collect data on use-of-force incidents by police officers. Soon after the initiative began, however, researchers from UConn discovered wide variations in how police classify use-of-force incidents.

The law required police to report “physical force that is likely to cause serious physical injury” and provided examples, such as using a chokehold or discharging a firearm, but it gave departments discretion over how to interpret that standard.

As a result, the authors of the UConn report caution against comparing data from different departments, as some reported incidents involving force that may not have been reported by others.

Many also missed the reporting deadline. The report includes data from only 55 municipal police departments, four special police departments and the Connecticut State Police. Many others have since filed reports that will be incorporated into future analysis by UConn.

The process is expected to improve this year. Lawmakers modified the law two years ago to standardize the reporting process. Since July 1, 2022, all police departments have been required to complete a new, electronic reporting form. The Police Officer Standards and Training Council also specified which incidents rise to the level of filing a report.

“We should view this report as a step in the right direction,” Barone said, “and sort of giving folks a taste of the type of information that we will be more thoroughly collecting in the future.”

'What is the right response?'

The report also highlights the significant share of people who police deemed to be either “emotionally disturbed” or “suicidal.” They account for close to 40% of all people against whom force was used.

In the future, Barone said it will be important for the state to explore how many of those people identified by law enforcement as in mental health distress ended up committed to the hospital, as opposed to arrested and brought back to a police station.

“The question becomes for policymakers what is the right response?” Barone said. “Is our law enforcement the right response for people in mental health crisis? In some cases they very well might be, but I think this is something, to me, that stood out in the report, as the state really needs to better understand this moving forward.”

Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said collecting use-of-force data will benefit law enforcement agencies by allowing them to better understand how practices compare across departments.

The numbers can also help provide a clearer picture of how frequently force is used, Dryfe said.

“It's very rare that that force is used in any police encounter,” he said. “When we do use force, it usually doesn’t result in serious injury to either the police officer or the subject of the use of force. And … if you really start looking at the number of cases that actually involve deadly physical force, it's a tiny, tiny fraction of the encounters that officers are having with the public every single day.”

Jim Haddadin is a data journalist for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer for NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.