Prince William County police rarely used force during arrests in 2020, but when they did, it was disproportionately used against Black people.
Those are the findings of the police department’s “use-of-force" report published on Friday, July 23 within the department’s 2020 annual crime report. It is the first time the Prince William County police department has released local use-of-force statistics and follows the release of similar data in Fairfax County and Washington D.C.
Local police used force 369 times in 2020 – or in about 5% of the 8,355 total arrests they made last year. In the vast majority of those situations, police officers used physical force without a weapon, such as a firearm, baton, pepper spray or canine.
Black people accounted for 49% of the department’s use-of-force incidents in 2020, compared to 23% each for white and Hispanic residents. Overall, Black people accounted for 40% of the police department’s total arrests in 2020, while white people comprised 31% of arrests and Hispanic people comprised 27%. Prince William County’s population is 43% white, 20% Black, 8% Asian and 23% Hispanic, according to demographic statistics posted on the county’s website.
“There's a disproportionate impact clearly on African Americans,” said Police Chief Peter Newsham in a Friday press call.
Asked why police officers used force against Black people more often than other groups, Newsham said he did not know the answer.
“I'm not the only chief in the country that doesn't know the answer to that question. But I do think we need to get to the bottom of why that is. And then, if we can take measures to correct it, we will,” Newsham said.
Newsham said the county has requested $250,000 in federal funding from U.S. Congress to hire an independent contractor to analyze the police department’s use-of-force policies and is seeking additional funding through the American Rescue Plan Act to double the number of local police officers trained in crisis intervention. Funding for both of those initiatives will be decided on later this year.
Most of the injuries reported as a result of local police use of force were abrasions, bruises or soreness. But arrestees also suffered several serious injuries, including a broken leg, according to the report. About 8% of the people who were involved in a police use-of-force incident required medical treatment at a local hospital for their injuries.
Only one fatal use of force occurred in 2020. Prince William police shot and killed a 79-year-old man in December after a brief standoff at his home in Four Seasons, a retirement community outside Dumfries. The Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office ruled the shooting justified because the man pointed a firearm at the police officers. It was the only instance in which local officers used their firearms in 2020, the report said.
Assaults against police officers increased
In 17% of all police use-of-force incidents in 2020, a police officer was also injured. More than 60 police officers reported injuries as a result of a use-of-force incident, and three police officers required medical attention at a local hospital, according to the report.
“There was a significant increase in serious assaults against police officers between 19 and 20,” Newsham said.
Of the 369 people against whom police officers used force in 2020, 76 were experiencing a mental health crisis, the report said. The Prince William County police department and community services have taken steps to change how the police respond to emergency mental health calls.
The department launched a “co-responder unit” in December 2020 that sends mental health clinicians alongside crisis-trained police officers to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis. The Prince William Board of County Supervisors provided additional funding to double the size of the co-responder unit beginning July 2021.
Those officer and clinician teams have responded to hundreds of emergency mental health calls this year, according to county officials.
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