Spotlight PA’s week-long journey down a reporting rabbit hole began with a simple question: How many law enforcement agencies are there in Pennsylvania? We assumed that answering this question would be a simple task. We were wrong.
The story began when Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl set out to examine what happened in the two years since the legislature passed Bill 57, a law that created a database to track police misconduct and guide law enforcement hiring in Pennsylvania. Every law enforcement agency in the state is required to report to the database, though Ohl’s reports found the law has several shortcomings, including a lack of enforcement mechanisms.
We learned that over 1,100 agencies are registered to use the database, but a key question remains: how many? Did the 1,100 agencies represent nearly all state agencies, or a fraction of them?
Instead of an answer, we found conflicting state and federal data, ambiguity about 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 response from the authorities has frustrated us as journalists, but should also raise concerns among locals. If the state doesn’t know how many agencies employ people with the power to make an arrest or carry a firearm, for example, how can it hold them all accountable? When agencies are overlooked by state and federal reports, 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 numbers may fluctuate over time as community needs change, the numbers we found weren’t a bit off; counts differed by the hundreds.
At the state level, a 2021 press release from Governor Tom Wolf’s office celebrating the launch of the Act 57 database references more than 1,300 law enforcement agencies. The 2018 Annual Uniform Crime Report on Crime in Pennsylvania, however, says it received data for 1,913 “jurisdictions.”
We then reviewed federal reports, checking databases created under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a voluntary program that collects data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. across the country and assigns each reporting agency a unique code.
One such database, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, lists more than 1,700 unique Pennsylvania codes in its 2020 data.
But that number still included some caveats. It is unclear if each code represents a unique law enforcement agency, or if smaller units within a larger department have their own number. (There were also problems with other data sources.)
Spotlight PA has filed a request for public registration with the FBI for the most recent codebook and is awaiting a response.
Another challenge with using federal numbers is that reporting can be voluntary and some smaller departments may lack the time and resources to participate, said Jacob Kaplan, chief data scientist for Reform Research and the responsibility of the police.
Other reports have raised similar data integrity issues. Many estimates did not specify what types of law enforcement agencies were included in their counts. In addition to state, regional, and municipal agencies in Pennsylvania, there are also police departments with niche jurisdictions such as universities, hospitals, and airports.
All of these should be reported to the new malpractice database.
For eight days, we asked the same question of 10 people, including federal and state officials, academics and lawmakers: How many law enforcement agencies are there in Pennsylvania?
A Department of Community and Economic Development local services database lists only municipal police departments. The attorney general’s and governor’s offices did not immediately have a clear answer.
Pennsylvania State Police were able to tell us how many agencies were signed up to use the new misconduct database, but not how many exist statewide.
“It turns out that (the Municipal Police Officer Education and Training Commission) doesn’t have a definitive total on the number of agencies in the PA,” said Lt. Adam Reed, director of communications of the state police.
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