While the specifics of police reform are still unknown, it is becoming clear that use of data will be a cornerstone of those efforts. Law enforcement decision-makers will need data and insights to establish a new generation of policies, training, police recruits, and approaches that reduce use of force incidents, complaints against officers, operating costs, and litigation risk, while promoting transparency and accountability to build public trust and legitimacy

It is often said that while policing has changed, police officers haven’t. As policymakers and law enforcement leaders act expeditiously to meet new police reform requirements, it’s critical to understand the scope of the policing problem and potential cascading effects of new reform measures.

In this data-driven society, technology will more than ever be necessary to drive and inform policy development and program development. However, these technological approaches should not focus just on negative outcomes, but also positive behavioral and performance indicators that support officer readiness, wellness, and long-term culture change.    

The current state of early intervention systems

Reform efforts at the municipal, state, and federal levels indicate the expanded use of early intervention systems (EIS), which are used to identify officers at risk of being involved in adverse incidents such as unnecessary or excessive use of force. As citizen complaints, use of force incidents, and accidents occur, current EIS combine the incidents to assign each officer a risk score.

Using past incidents to identify officers, who may have crossed the line is important and should be part of any serious reform effort. Current EIS can help agencies intervene when officers meet predetermined thresholds to remand those officers to training, counseling or other measures. But there are too many stories of police officers with a long history of complaints and abuse that only come to light publicly when the incident shows up on social or news media. This erodes not just public trust, but also legitimacy of authority.

However, before most adverse incidents occur, there are often missed opportunities to prevent them from occurring. Current systems, by design, gather insufficient indicators and have inflexible business rules that fail to identify anomalous patterns of adverse behaviors as well as positive acts by exemplary model officers. Capturing and analyzing the aggregate of adverse and positive behaviors and performance provides a foundation for true reform that fosters generational change in policing. Currents EIS have not maintained pace with societal and policing changes. Moreover, they have failed to prevent the various adverse incidents that have contributed to the call for police reforms.

Integrating more data to create a holistic view of an officer

Pre-service and ongoing in-service training provide police officers the guidelines for mechanical and legal application of force. Even more important is the ability to deescalate situations and proportionately apply the use of force on citizens. Officers must make split-second “reasonable” decisions under rapidly evolving and intense circumstances. But thoughts drive actions, and police officers encounter a variety of stressors, which impact their physical and mental health. Regardless, officers are required to have situational awareness and an enhanced presence of mind to apply critical thinking to protect all involved from injury or death.  

Early intervention systems have laid the groundwork for more comprehensive strategies that support officer readiness and wellness. This is accomplished through a holistic approach that incorporates the data sets collected by current early intervention systems and combining them with information on training, evaluations, commendations, absences and leave, assignment history and other behavioral and performance data.

Continuous analysis of indicators of performance & behavioral indicators to drive interventions

The goal is not just to find officers more at risk of misuse of force, it is to assess officer readiness. Are they ready to perform their duties up to expectations, or even exceed expectations? Or do they need counseling or training? Such a holistic system supported by continuous analytics can track an officer’s performance and behavior over time. As counseling, training, and incident dispositions are concluded, those results are fed into the models to make them more robust with a more complete view of readiness and risk.

A continuous monitoring approach also allows for an officer to grow and change. For instance, a rookie officer may not have the emotional intelligence, stress management, and calm demeanor of a seasoned veteran or supervisor. But as they grow into the job and demonstrate the ability to de-escalate situations, a holistic system would take that maturation into account.

Putting the spotlight on exemplary performance

It is understandable to be apprehensive when a brighter light is shown on a profession where split-second decisions can mean the difference between safety and harm, life and death. But in this unprecedented push for police reform, there is an opportunity to not only root out those who damage the public trust but highlight those that uphold the best traditions of honor and service.

A holistic system captures the trainings, actions, citizen feedback, commendations and other performance and behavioral indicators that reveal patterns of exemplary performance. Is an officer going above and beyond with his or her community interactions? While on patrol, are they proactively checking in with business owners, community leaders, and engaging in mentoring programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America? These are signs of dedication to protecting and serving the community that help create a complete view of an officer. It would also include assignment history, which could show what supervisors, units or locations are producing higher performing officers.

A holistic system reveals high performing officers with low rates of adverse behavior so that officers can be held up as examples to be emulated. Additionally, if an officer receives a use of force complaint, their supervisor can see whether such a complaint is consistent with the officer’s overall conduct, providing the officer’s score as a mitigating factor in the investigation. The ability to capture the patterns associated with excellent policework creates opportunities for new training and policies that ingrain these positive traits. A holistic system has the flexibility to evolve over time and assess the positive or negative outcomes of new initiatives.

But how does it know what’s “positive” or “negative”?

Holistic but local approach to evidence-based systems

A holistic system integrates all relevant and permitted data to create a complete view of an officer. But how can you know if an officer is at risk of a violation? The key to that is establishing baselines based on data from across a precinct, district, state and beyond.

Policing is a naturally tense job, which at times involves heated interactions with the public. Complaints are natural. But at what point do complaints about an officer exceed those of his peer group to the point of being an outlier? Racism is at the heart of the national debate currently raging. What if an officer is arresting young, black males at a much higher rate than his peers? That could be an indicator of racial bias.

However, the peer groups from which you establish the baselines must make sense. State-level data is not very helpful, much less national. A cop in Los Angeles has a different job experience than one in suburban Kansas. It doesn’t make sense to compare them to the same baselines when one is more likely to deal with violent crimes and a populace that has a higher level of distrust of the police. It’s critical that, for meaningful comparisons, members of a peer group are truly peers in every way possible.

Officer wellness completes the picture

The thoughts, decisions and actions that precede a police officer’s wrongful use of force are not confined to the tense moments leading up to the incident. There can be years of patterns and evidence that indicate the likelihood of that officer going beyond an acceptable response, to one with tragic consequences. While a holistic system provides a much better chance at prevention, the truth often lies in an area officers are frequently reluctant to confront: mental wellness.

In a report from the Police Executive Resource Forum, Guiding Principles on Use of Force, researchers Sarah Creighton, Asst. Chief (Ret.), San Diego Police Department and Daniel Blumberg, Associate Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University write:

“Law enforcement agencies that intend to bring about changes in the way officers approach residents need to equip their officers to be able to examine their own biases, predisposition, and emotions, not just the community member’s behavior. In the end, organizations that maintain a culture of wellness improve officer safety and increase the likelihood of nonviolent police encounters with the community.”

But the authors note, “However, despite growing attention to this important topic, it remains, in many organizations, shrouded in stigma, because of the mistaken belief that it has, historically, represented weakness.”

Policing is one of the most mentally taxing professions there is. Tragically, this manifests as higher rates of alcohol abuse, divorce and suicide. These mutually degenerative factors can also lead to excessive use of force incidents.

To complete the holistic view of an officer, data related to the mental strain of the job should be included. Data on counseling, traumatic incidents and, where appropriate and allowed, mental health information are valuable. Of course, this is sensitive information that must be handled according to appropriate and rigorous privacy regulations. The goal of this data, first and foremost, is to help an officer in danger of harming themselves or others.

A more sophisticated and informed approach that fosters transparency and accountability

The public is demanding reform, and such transparency is necessary in reinforcing legitimacy and maintaining trust and public safety.

A holistic system makes it easier to publicly report on trends in both negative and positive police interactions. All data, decisions and action can be appropriately shared with the public to demonstrate transparency. These factors will help drive policies, programs, legislation while enhancing police training, tactics and recruitment.

Current early intervention systems take a too narrow of a view of officer behavior. An officer is far more than what’s in his disciplinary record. An approach rooted in officer readiness and wellness considers the physical and mental toll of policework, along with the training, evaluations and other information that law enforcement leaders can use to recognize great performance, get officers needed support, and minimize adverse incidents and risk of litigation.

Micro changes at the officer level can ultimately lead to not just police reform, but a positive cultural change. Let’s build something strong, sustainable and meaningful that police, policymakers and the public can all be proud of.



Major Juan Colon

Major Juan Colon is the National Director for Opioids and Illegal Drugs Solutions for analytics company, SAS. He spent 25 years with the New Jersey State Police where he applied his belief in the importance of data to launching the state’s Drug Monitoring Initiative. He also served in an undercover capacity, helped implement New Jersey’s fusion center and served as a drug policy advisor at the Attorney General’s Office.