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Project expands available information on police deadly force cases

UIUC student Sruthi Navneetha, part of SPOTLITE’s student research team, compiles data and scans news articles for police uses of lethal force.
UIUC student Sruthi Navneetha, part of SPOTLITE’s student research team, compiles data and scans news articles for police uses of lethal force.

The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign recently released data from a project that counted more than double the number of cases of lethal force use by police as a state-mandated collection did.

The Systematic Policing Oversight Through Lethal-force Incident Tracking Environment (SPOTLITE) project found nearly 700 cases of lethal incidents, which involved 734 civilians from 2014-21.

And since the Illinois State Police documented police uses of lethal force (between 2017 and 2020), they found 146 uses of lethal force by police, while in the same period, the SPOTLITE project found 345 deadly cases.

The project came out of a 2017 summit involving national police, organizations, advocacy groups and academics to fill gap the lack of an authoritative registry of police uses of lethal force across the country, said political science professor and project director Scott Althaus, who led interdisciplinary experts working within the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research at the U of I.

SPOTLITE looks at where, when and how often police use lethal force and shows the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the civilians involved.

The aim is to improve accountability to communities and to help police have better counts, see where reform is needed and whether it is working, he said.

“The project helps communities to better understand when uses of lethal force have happened, how frequently how they've developed over time, so they can have a clearer picture of whether they see a problem that needs to be addressed, or they see their local policing agencies appearing to exercise their responsibilities in appropriate way, ” he said.

Of the civilians involved in Illinois police use of lethal force over the last eight years, 61% are Black, 21% have been white, 17% Hispanic or Latino and 1% Asian.

“We're also hoping that, as residents of Illinois use the SPOTLITE dashboard and can look up the information for their own county on what the racial and ethnic breakdown is for civilians that have been involved in these in these incidents, that they can better understand the scope and scale of some of the challenges that are being talked about nationally, talked about locally, but often without a shared base of common interest.” Althaus said.

Meanwhile, the project found that of the 102 counties in the state of Illinois, 40% of them had had no incidents of police uses of lethal force at all in the eight year period covered. He said, “That's not something that would be easy to pick up from national news coverage.”

“It is a somber task to document these incidents across the state. Today is just the first step in a longer series of efforts to try to create a fuller information picture on what is happening around the state,” he said. “Our research has just begun. We're moving towards a more complete story, but we still have a ways to go.“

"I'm sure the Illinois State Police are doing what they can with their available resources. But even the FBI has not been able to pull together a credible national database using the same sort of methods. And that's where the SPOTLITE project approaches the problem from a different vantage point.“ he said.

Althaus notes that 700 law enforcement agencies in Illinois are likely underfunded for reporting information because the focus is on putting police officers on streets.

“So we see not only an underreporting, among policing agencies for police uses of lethal force, but we see the same kind of underreporting, in crime report data, that you would think policing agencies would have a strong incentive to publish because it helps to communicate the value that they're creating for their communities."

“We start with news reports of these local incidents, and document some basic information about where these happened, who were the people involved, and so on, from news reports and other credible administrative records, to be able to pull together a much larger picture than these other sources have been able to provide,” he said.

Meanwhile, the project has drawn applause from the ACLU of Illinois. The group gave kudos to the UIUC for “committing the resources and the manpower to collecting and sharing information with the public about policing.

"For far too long information about policing and police activity, whether it's in Illinois or across the United States, has really been opaque. It's been difficult to access and comprehend. More information, better, clearer information that is accessible to a wider range of people can really help residents in every single neighborhood across Illinois, participate in meaningful discussions about the type of policing that they want for themselves and for their neighbors,” said ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka. “And that's really a great contribution to the dialogue around policing both in our state and across the country.”

The aim is to add more types of data and to take the project nationwide, which Althaus said will require more funding.
More information can be found at SPOTLITE Dashboard | Cline Center.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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