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Justice System

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

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

Bucks County NAACP president Karen Downer speaks at one of the organization’s events.
Bucks County NAACP

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HARRISBURG — 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.

The police association strongly encouraged all the departments to fulfill the Bucks NAACP requests, said Joe Bartorilla, chief of the Middletown Township department and vice president of the chiefs’ association, but ultimately had no power to mandate compliance.

Some jurisdictions are limited by their government structure, Bartorilla said, where requests under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law are handled by a legal department. And some agencies do not have the support staff to help officers compile data, he said.

“They're not, obviously, doing the volume of work that a larger department does, but still it is time-consuming,” he said.

Some departments did not respond at all, according to the report; others denied requests or sent heavily redacted responses but produced further records after the Bucks NAACP appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

The police agencies were especially unresponsive to requests for information on citizen complaints about officer conduct and incidents where officers used force against civilians.

John Blevins, who managed the data for the project, said some departments explained they did not have records of past complaints because of regular turnover in leadership positions. Others simply never responded to the request or denied access because they classified complaints against officers as exempt from disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.

Agencies also kept limited data on traffic stops.

State Police in 2021 renewed the collection of traffic stop data, including the perceived race of the driver, after a Spotlight PA investigation found the department halted the practice without explanation or public notice.

Whether local departments track traffic stop data comes down to the policies and capacity of individual agencies, said Daniel Friel, chief of the Warrington Township Police Department and president of the chiefs’ association.

“Years ago, there used to be gender and race on the traffic citation, and for some reason that was taken away years ago. It's not required,” he said. “Some accredited departments do track that, but we also don't want to get in the habit of asking our officers on car stops to ask people to identify their race, and we did explain that to the [NAACP] board. That's a very uncomfortable and delicate situation.”

Fourteen departments, or 36% of those asked, produced data that included the race or ethnicity of the person being pulled over. Even among agencies that did record this, some did not make it available to the NAACP in a way that could allow for further analysis.

In analyzing the data, the Bucks NAACP found Black people are arrested in Bucks County at a rate disproportionate to their share of the population. In 2021, the most recent year examined, Black people made up 20% of the arrests made by Bucks County police officers. That same year, Black people made up 4.2% of the county population.

The organization found similar disparities across the board.

Some departments took issue with using population as a baseline for the arrest analysis, according to the report, because the people who are arrested in a certain jurisdiction may vary from the people who live in that place.

“I know in Middletown, we have a huge business community,” Bartorilla said. “And we estimate, and it's hard for us to know, that our population during the day goes from 46,000, up to close to 70,000. Whereas you have other communities, they shrink to maybe in half, because they don't have businesses.”

Blevins, in an interview with Spotlight PA, said that while he’s aware that population can be a flawed metric, it’s the best one available.

“We chose to compare the percentage of arrests of African Americans to their proportion of the local population because the data is available,” he said, and it’s from reliable sources.

“There is a fair amount of academic papers about what they call the baseline that you're going to compare this enforcement activity to, and there's no consensus whatsoever about what baseline to use.”

In addition to the data analysis, the Bucks NAACP created 14 standards around police practices in the county. The standards address use-of-force, training, union contracts, and barriers to reporting misconduct, among other areas.

The group found many departments lag on these measures, including the use-of-force guidelines the chiefs’ association adopted following Floyd’s death and the national uprising it sparked.

Contrary to assertions from the association at the time, all 39 agencies have not formally integrated those guidelines into their policies more than three years later. The Bucks NAACP found 18 agencies had not adopted all of the policies, if any, or did not produce records that allowed the NAACP to make an assessment. The organization addressed the deficiency with the respective chiefs.

Following conversations with the group, seven additional departments updated their policies to align with the association guidelines.

The Bucks NAACP presented each police agency with the findings of their study in 2022, and alongside the chiefs’ association, identified areas where the two groups could continue to work together to address concerns.

​​The report recommends all Bucks police departments fully implement the use-of-force guidelines, eliminate accountability loopholes in union contracts, remove barriers for residents to report police misconduct, and establish a program to improve the representation of people of color in department ranks.

The NAACP and the departments established smaller working groups in late 2022 to achieve agreed upon goals, but more than a year later, the NAACP is frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress.

“We got a very quick agreement to work with us and everything slowed down a lot after that, and those subcommittees never really got traction,” Blevins said. “After a while, we got to November 2023, an entire year had gone by. And we really had nothing to show for it.”

But Friel thinks the working relationship with the NAACP made progress overall.

He noted the chiefs’ association is pushing to get all the police departments in Bucks County accredited by the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission, which only certifies agencies that show they have adopted the policies the commission requires.

“That would assure that we're collecting the data and following the best practices,” he said.

The NAACP volunteers said the barriers they faced in getting access to public information highlight the need for legislative solutions.

The report recommends state or local officials adopt measures requiring police agencies to keep more robust records of use-of-force incidents, traffic stops, and investigative stops, and to aggregate that information in a countywide database.

In their interview with Spotlight PA, Friel and Bartorilla echoed the need for more uniform and robust data collection.

Other states are ahead of Pennsylvania on this issue because most commonwealth departments are still using an outdated system to report crime statistics to the FBI.

The newer system, called the National Incident-Based Reporting System or NIBRS, was implemented in 2021 and captures more information than the old Uniform Crime Reporting system.

It allows more nuanced analyses of arrests being made by a certain department or in a certain area, they said.

“We also believe that nobody should have to go through this,” Blevins said of the lengths the NAACP went to track down all this information.

“If our agencies and legislatures were really, really concerned with policing, they would have to account for standards for these thousands and thousands of municipal agencies in a much more detailed way than they currently do.”

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