Vargas: Data shows only part of the picture when it comes to police use of force


California Attorney General Kamila Harris recently came out in support of AB2524, introduced by Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin. The bill would streamline the collection and reporting of data related to police use of force as well as assaults against police officers.

I am in favor of modernizing data collection and streamlining the processes it takes to access it and analyze what is going on.

What data can’t do is provide the answer to the questions that are rarely addressed in the discourse on police use of force.

We all know what happens when an officer has to use force. When deadly force is used, it often is a front-page story in the local paper and the lead on the evening news.

The bigger question is, “Why?” That’s something that numbers and data can’t by themselves answer.

When I read the news release by the Attorney General’s office I was struck by the quote, “In addition to providing greater transparency, this information enables policymakers to craft informed, data-driven public policy.”

I would hope spreadsheets and pie charts would only be one portion of the driving forces behind public policy.

Data never will explain a police officer’s mindset at the moment the decision to use force is made.

It will not capture the officer’s risk assessment of events as they occur in real time.

There are just too many factors that go into split-second decision-making. There are way too many questions:

What was the nature of the call? Was it a violent crime? Were weapons involved?

What was the suspect’s behavior? Was the suspect compliant?

Just about every instance of police use of force is dictated by suspect behavior. Why is he running from me? Why is he fighting me? What kind of person fights a police officer?

In the officer’s mind, if he or she loses the fight, his or her gun now belongs to the bad guy. Nothing but bad can happen from that.

Another question is, What are the area dynamics? Let’s be real: You don’t have to be a police officer to recognize a sketchy neighborhood. Is there a gang problem? Drug dealing? A high crime rate?

What about the officer’s level of apprehension? Did he just come out of briefing after watching a video of an officer murdered by a suspect pulling a gun out of his pocket while he was talking to him?

A training byproduct of in-car cameras and body cams has been police officers now get to witness tragic events first hand.

Every police officer promises himself, his family and others that love him, “That’s not going to be me.”

How many police officers have been shot, shot at, beaten or injured? There is no database that tracks that. Does the public know the frequency of the knockdown, drag-out instances in which cops put handcuffs on someone who doesn’t want to be cuffed?

How many guns do police officers seize every day? Lots of them. Every property room in every department across the country is full of guns, many of them taken from serious criminals.

Do people really understand there are a lot of bad guys with guns on the streets?

A police officer always thinks about the possibility of a gun. That’s how he or she stays alive.

In the end, data will only give an idea of the frequency with which police use of force occurs. It will never capture the totality of circumstances of each event as it occurs.

Some instances of police use of force will be looked at by police departments and district attorneys and defense lawyers, will be litigated in front of juries, and ultimately will be tried in the court of public opinion.

It is only when we understand the “why” that we can get a true understanding of what the numbers mean. I just hope our decision-makers take the time to ask why.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at