Study: Racial disparities in Fairfax County police’s use of force

Analyzing three years of data on the use of force by police in Fairfax County, Virginia, researchers found that police used force against Black and white people at rates higher than expected.

The study, led by University of Texas researchers, was presented Tuesday to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee.

Researchers analyzed 1,360 cases of police use of force from 2016 through 2018, comparing use of force incidents against benchmark/estimates of the force that could be expected.

The Fairfax County Police Department used force against 576 Black people, 519 white people, 28 Hispanic people and 45 Asian people.

The study found that while resistance levels were equal across the racial and ethnic groups, average force levels were slightly higher for Black people than for the other groups.

The benchmarks were:

  1. All criminal suspects
  2. Violent crime suspects
  3. Violent crime suspects plus those involved in weapons offenses
  4. All arrestees
  5. Violent crime arrestees
  6. Violent crime arrestees plus those involved in weapons offenses

Across the county, force was used at rates exceeding all six benchmarks for white people and exceeding four benchmarks for Blacks people.

“The white disparity finding surprised me. It’s unfortunate and also not atypical at all to find overrepresentation of African Americans across a variety of analyses in police outcomes, whether it’s force or any other outcome, that’s not an uncommon finding. So, I wasn’t surprised by that. I was surprised by the white finding,”  said Michael Smith, of the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice and lead researcher of the study.

While the rates of force were found to be higher than expected for white and Black people, the study found that Black people incurred a disproportionate share of force in encounters with police.

“Black civilians were at greater risk for having force used against them, all other things being equal in arrest situations,” Smith said.

The research showed that the disproportionate use of force was driven by three police stations in the Mount Vernon District — Mt. Vernon, Franconia and West Springfield.

“The Mount Vernon District results are deeply concerning to me,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck. “We know we have challenges that go across the board,” he said.

Not all police agencies maintain information on incidents of officers drawing and pointing their weapons at suspects and arrestees, but Fairfax County police have such data.

“The disparity in force against African Americans, in particular, is largely located in the pointing of a weapon at someone,” Smith said.

The study also revealed that when arrests involved only female police officers, there was a reduction in the severity of force.

Police Chief Kevin Davis told the board that the department’s female representation of 16.5% exceeds the national average of 12%, but the county is planning on hiring more female officers.

Davis said Fairfax County and other police departments are making a “30 by 30 pledge” — aiming to employ 30% female officers by the year 2030.

The report includes a number of recommendations for reducing use of force by police officers, including expanding data collection for greater analysis, in particular, recording data on all instances of force and resistance sequentially during each encounter to document how each incident unfolded.

Another recommendation endorsed by the Public Safety Committee chairman, Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who represents Lee District, is to rotate officers out of high-crime patrol areas and district stations regularly.

Lusk said the report’s recommendations will be added to a community database, which includes other recommendations for changes to police policy. He said that a public meeting will be held at a future date to allow the public the opportunity to question the researchers. And, a community group will be developed to review the study’s findings and provide feedback and a timeline for recommendations.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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