Police Use of Force Databases: Sources of Bias in Lethal Force Data Collection

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Virginia Tech


Understanding police use of lethal force requires the collection of reliable data. Due to bias present in police-use-of-lethal-force databases, researchers typically triangulate using multiple data sources to compensate for this bias; however, triangulation is restricted when the bias present in each database is unknown. This study investigates three government-funded and three independent police-use-of-lethal-force databases to identify methodological sources of bias present in the major U.S. data-collection systems. Bias was coded based on nine categories, including misclassification bias, broad conceptualization, narrow conceptualization, overlap bias, coverage bias, voluntary response bias, observer bias, gatekeeping bias, and self-report response bias. Findings suggest that all six databases had at least three different types of methodological bias present. Generally, public, government-sponsored databases exhibit bias through data self-reporting by law enforcement and varying victim race determination methods. Private databases reveal bias through media-based reporting and the triangulation of data from multiple sources, which is further complicated by lack of transparency in the databases' design and administrative procedures. All six databases have a unique position to the State, which should also inform researcher data selection. I argue that selecting data sources that complement each other based on these identified biases will produce a more complete image of police-use-of-lethal-force and enhance finding accuracy in future research.



lethal force, data triangulation, bias, police, data collection, legal intervention