Two months before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, the Wisconsin Department of Justice began collecting data on use-of-force instances involving officers across the state.
Prior to that, DOJ-led data gathering in this realm was limited to certain officer-involved deaths — specifically, situations where a cop’s shooting of an individual was determined to be “justifiable.”
Meanwhile, it was left to the state’s biggest law enforcement union to amass information on both fatal and nonfatal officer-involved shootings, a practice the Wisconsin Professional Police Association implemented in 2014.
At DOJ, the new initiative was officially launched in late March, a couple years after Wisconsin officials secured federal grant funding that allowed them to start collecting information on use-of-force instances and arrest-related deaths within law enforcement agencies’ jurisdictions.
So far, five dozen offices have been actively submitting data, DOJ spokeswoman Rebecca Ballweg said, while the remaining 500 or so agencies will be begin throughout this year.
Though the agency's own Division of Criminal Investigation looks into many of the officer-involved shootings and deaths that occur in Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul said in an interview that as for information outside of the cases the division was involved in, "historically that's not data that had been collected by DOJ."
"Historically that information hasn't been collected by any state agencies in Wisconsin," he said of data for officer-involved death incidents in the state.
DOJ's role in investigating officer-involved incidents has increased since a 2014 law requiring outside investigations when people die in police custody was enacted.
The law, the first-of-its kind nationwide, required that at least two investigators from an outside agency team up to review the circumstances surrounding the deaths and that reports of such investigations be publicly released if criminal charges aren't filed against any officer involved.
Since then, DOJ has investigated a total of 80 officer-involved deaths, 24 officer-involved shootings and assisted in another 10 cases when other investigating agencies have questions about the process, according to data provided by Ballweg.
DOJ itself isn't required to investigate every officer-involved incident, but it's unclear how the agency's involvement compares to the scope of those instances each year.
A review of WPPA data, provided by executive director Jim Palmer, and listing officer-involved shootings across the state from fatal and nonfatal cases spanning from 2014 to 2019, showed a series of other investigating entities, including neighboring agencies or counties or a sheriff's office.
For example, of the 32 cases listed in 2019, 16 were listed as having been investigated by DCI.
Palmer said WPPA, which represents many officers involved in these instances, began collecting the data six years ago as "it was clearly becoming a more prominent issue of public concern."
In the years since, Palmer said he has shared the information with chiefs and sheriffs and with the public, adding it was "challenging not to have an informed debate when we don't have any information."
"We have long supported any interest in the part of DOJ to collect data more broadly," he said.
The agency's new data collection project is a combination of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's national use-of-force program and the federal Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance's arrest-related deaths program, Ballweg said.
"Because there are two federal agencies collecting similar data from law enforcement agencies, Wisconsin DOJ decided it would be easier and more efficient for law enforcement if we built a data collection tool that could be utilized to fulfill both reporting initiatives," she added.
DOJ first received funding for the initiative a couple years ago under the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, per Ballweg.
Among the information that's being collected for use-of-force incidents is any instance in which force was used that resulted in someone's death or serious bodily harm or cases in which an officer discharged a firearm in a person's direction, according to DOJ.
For arrest-related deaths, reported information includes deaths that occur because of the use of force, as well as deaths that occur during interactions with law enforcement responding to medical or mental health assistance, when an individual was confined in correctional or detention facilities or when the individual had their freedom to leave restricted by officers prior to, during or after an arrest.
All the data will be reported by agencies on a monthly basis, per information from DOJ.
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