Over the past several decades we’ve become obsessed with metrics. How do we know how well our public schools are doing? Average test scores. How do we compare colleges to one another? Average SAT scores. How did some people know the Orioles were doomed against the Royals before they even took the field? Wins Above Replacement. How do we know how effective the police are at doing their job? Crime stats. How do we know Baltimore has a democracy problem? Local turnout rates.
We now routinely use metrics of one sort or another to measure everything from worker productivity to school quality to how often the 22 bus should run.
But there are institutions where we don’t use them enough. Take the police. We know how many people the Baltimore City Police Department employs (about 4,000). We know how many crimes are committed within a given neighborhood down to a quarter of a mile. Through investigative reporting we know how much money they’ve paid out in police brutality cases (approximately $6 million).
But there are lots of things we don’t know.
We know how many bullets were fired in the entire country of Germany in 2011: Eighty-five. (This is not a typo.) But we don’t even know how many bullets Baltimore police officers purchased, much less fired, in any year. And we definitely don’t know how many bullets police fired in the United States as a whole.
When metrics work well, they improve our ability to make decisions. They can help us make decisions about where to send our children to school, where to live, even about who to root for in a given game.
In this case, knowing how many bullets the police department fired in Baltimore and in other cities can give us, along with other data, a means of not only comparing and contrasting them, it can also give us a technical means of making them less violent.
To me, the most important phrase of 2014 was “black lives matter.” The catalyst for this phrase was the seeming explosion in the number of unarmed black men and women killed in encounters with the police, an explosion that was not accompanied by any increase at all in the number of police officers actually put on trial for murder. In response to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, and Tyrone West (among others), some have argued that we should require police officers to wear body cameras. Although the Garner case itself shows the problems with such an approach—Garner’s murder was fully captured on video but the police officers responsible were not indicted—wearing body cameras might be beneficial.
However, I’d argue that a more fruitful approach would be forcing police departments to not only count the bullets they use, but to be accountable for them. Now just as we know that cameras by themselves don’t make officers more accountable, making police departments count bullets alone won’t do it either. Inevitably we need a political movement. But the more information people have about the technical means the police use to carry out their duties, the more democratic control we can exert over them.
Dr. Lester Spence is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.