Crime & Courts

New data offers view of Alaska officers’ use of force against citizens, from Tasers to guns

New data released by the Alaska Department of Public Safety reveals a detailed view of the 2,014 incidents in which officers used force, from pepper spray to police dogs to firearms, against citizens over the past five years.

Troy Payne, a UAA professor and the director of the Alaska Justice Information Center, said the data offers a look at information few Alaska law enforcement agencies have shared — or collected — in the past.

“Your first reaction should be, ‘wait, they weren’t doing that before?’” he said. “But they weren’t. There was not a push to collect use of force data, even fatal use of force data.”

No law mandates that the department — or any law enforcement agency in Alaska — collect data on use of force, said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the public safety department. But last June, as the murder of George Floyd brought police use of force into the national spotlight, the department released its first five-year use of force statistical report.

The department will now release data covering the previous five years each July, McDaniel said. DPS is also reporting to a national FBI data collection effort on use of force, he said.

[2020 ADN special report: 43 people have been killed by Alaska law enforcement officers in the last 5 1/2 years. Here’s what we learned by examining each case. and When Alaska police use deadly force, who holds them accountable?]

“This national program will provide greater clarity into the data surrounding use of force incidents nationwide, something that law enforcement leaders and Americans have requested for years,” McDaniel said.

Releasing the data is a step forward, Payne said, though the way it’s presented makes comparisons and conclusions difficult in some cases.

“I think it is always useful for the public to know what kind of coercive force is being used by the government against, on whom and how often,” he said.

The report includes all incidents in which an Alaska State Trooper, village public safety officer or wildlife trooper used a level of force higher than “resistant handcuffing” against a citizen in a five-year stretch between July 1, 2016 and the end of June.

[Earlier story: Pioneering study reveals a detailed view of Alaska police officers’ use of deadly force]

Officers who work for the Department of Public Safety are required to enter information in software called BlueTeam, so the data is self-reported. The information counts incidents, and more than one officer, type of force, or citizen can be involved in a single incident.

Some of the takeaways:

• Nineteen people were shot and killed by DPS officers over the five years. An additional seven were shot but survived.

• Officers reported using firearms in 1,929 instances during the five-year period, by far the most of any type of force used. The tally includes situations when a gun was drawn from a holster as a threat or otherwise introduced to a scenario, not just times when a shot was fired.

• Officers used armored vehicles 41 times, police dogs 77 times and “flash bangs” — explosive devices meant to disorient suspects — 30 times.

• Other types of force police reported using included pepper spray (180 times), tear gas (17 times), Tasers (602 times). Officers reported Tasers as being “effective” only 72% of the time.

• Officers reported using choke holds known as “lateral vascular neck holds” twice. Such restraints are banned by some departments and considered a use of potentially deadly force by DPS.

• Most commonly, force was used in the process of arresting someone -- representing about 48% of use of force incidents. Traffic stops accounted for 10% of the incidents.

• Citizens were injured in 16% of the use of force incidents reported. Officers were injured in 10% of the incidents.

The data also includes information about the race of the officer who used force and the person the force was used on, though Payne, the UAA professor, says it should be taken with caution because it appears incomplete.

An officer’s chain of command reviews every use of force, and discipline is possible if the actions are found to stray from procedures. DPS would not release information about how often such discipline has been meted out in the past five years.