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When It Comes to Officer-Involved Shootings, Most Police Departments Don’t Track Data

When Michelle Cusseaux was shot and killed by Phoenix police in 2014, her death sparked outrage across the Valley.

Cusseaux was mentally ill, and police said she was wielding a hammer when she opened her door. But, under public pressure, Phoenix police reviewed the case, and a year later, it was ruled outside of department policy and the officer who shot her was demoted.

But not every officer-involved shooting attracts that kind of attention. In fact, it can be difficult for many departments to even track every officer-involved shooting, according to David Choate, associate director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“They can shrug their shoulders, they can probably look up in the system and tell you they’ve had ‘x’ number in the past year,” Choate said, but they likely wouldn’t be able to tell you much about them, save a few that made the news. “And I think that’s going to be the norm,” he said.

Since the Cusseaux case, Choate said that the Phoenix Police Department has made many changes to the way they deal with and track officer-involved shootings.

In fact, he said that Phoenix police were actually ahead of most of the national attention on officer-involved shootings. In 2014, Choate said that some people within the department recognized that there had been an uptick in officer-involved shootings, started looking into the issue and realized they didn’t have good records of them within the department.

Eventually, they collaborated with Choate and the Center for Violence Prevention to help them come up with a better way to track the officer-involved shootings and report them to the public. And they’ve since made changes based on what they found.

But, he said, most departments are likely not that far along in tracking these yet. But, he thinks, when it comes to officer-involved shootings, the tide is changing.

“It’s an exciting time in thinking about the fact that the public is demanding a different expectation from their police departments,” he said.

But, at the same time, he said much is still unknown about officer-involved shootings around the country — and whether or not any particular department is handling them well or not well.

Then, when it comes to what information is released to the media about officer-involved shootings, Choate said that what’s usually lost is context — what happened before to lead up to a shooting.

And, one of the real difficulties in releasing information about officer-involved shootings is confidentiality, Choate said. Protecting information about victims as well as officers is something that police departments will have to address that as they navigate these issues.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.