Spotlight PA’s attempt to count police agencies in Pennsylvania unearthed large discrepancies — and that has implications for accountability.
Emma Dooling and Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA
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Spotlight PA’s weeklong trip down a reporting rabbit hole began with a simple question: How many law enforcement agencies are in Pennsylvania?
We assumed answering this would be a straightforward task.
We were wrong.
The reporting started when Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl set out to examine what happened in the two years since the legislature passed Act 57, a law that created a database to track police misconduct and guide hiring for law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania. Every law enforcement agency in the state is required to report to the database, although Ohl’s reporting found that the law includes several loopholes, including a lack of enforcement mechanisms.
We learned that more than 1,100 agencies were enrolled to use the database, but a key question remained: Out of how many? Did the 1,100 agencies represent nearly every agency in the state, or a fraction of them?
In lieu of an answer, we found conflicting state and federal data, ambiguity over which law enforcement agencies are counted in federal reports, and potential resource disparities between agencies, all of which contribute to the confusion.
The lack of a clear answer from officials was frustrating to us as journalists, but should also raise concerns for residents. If the state doesn’t know how many agencies employ people with the power to make an arrest or carry a gun, for example, how can it hold them all accountable? When agencies are overlooked by state and federal reporting, residents lose access to vital information about their communities.
We checked data and reports from national and state sources and found a wide range of estimates. While the numbers could ebb and flow over time as community needs changed, the numbers we found weren’t off by a little; the counts differed by hundreds.
At the state level, a 2021 press release from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office celebrating the launch of the Act 57 database references more than 1,300 law enforcement agencies. The 2018 Crime in Pennsylvania Annual Uniform Crime Report, however, says it received data for 1,913 “jurisdictions.”
We next looked at federal reports, checking the databases created as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a voluntary program that gathers data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and assigns each reporting agency a unique code.
One of these databases, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, lists more than 1,700 unique Pennsylvania codes in its 2020 data.
But this number still included some caveats. It’s unclear if each code represents a unique law enforcement agency, or whether smaller units within a larger department have their own number. (We ran across this problem with other data sources, too.)
Spotlight PA has filed a public records request with the FBI for the most recent code directory and is awaiting a response.
Another challenge to using the federal numbers is that reporting can be voluntary and some smaller departments might lack the time and resources to participate, said Jacob Kaplan, the chief data scientist for Research on Policing Reform and Accountability.
Other reports raised similar data integrity concerns. Many estimates did not specify which kinds of law enforcement agencies were included in their counts. Along with Pennsylvania’s state, regional, and municipal agencies, there are also police departments with niche jurisdictions such as universities, hospitals, and airports.
All of these should be reporting to the new misconduct database.
Over eight days, we asked 10 people — including state and federal officials, academics, and lawmakers — this same question: How many law enforcement agencies are in Pennsylvania?
None of them knew.
A Department of Community and Economic Development database of local services lists only municipal police departments. The offices of the Attorney General and the governor both did not immediately have a clear answer.
The Pennsylvania State Police were able to tell us how many agencies were enrolled to use the new misconduct database, but not how many exist statewide.
“It turns out that [the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission] does not have a definitive total on the number of agencies in PA,” said Lt. Adam Reed, State Police communications director.
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