The dispute between police and the public over injury-causing arrests is on display in Denton.
Sandra Bland, who in 2015 was jailed aggressively in Waller County for a minor traffic offense and three days later died of suicide, left open a window for the public to understand how aggressive police are in Texas.
Following her death, the Sandra Bland Act required police to answer to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement this among other questions: “Was physical force resulting in bodily injury used during [a] stop?”
A study by the Texas criminal justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty pored over the data from 2018 and found the Denton Police Department was one of the more aggressive agencies in Texas during traffic stops.
Of the 20,476 traffic stops by Denton police in 2018, about 86 devolved into cases of officers causing bodily injury to people being arrested, according to the data. In a city of about 1.5 million people, San Antonio police recorded 152,099 traffic stops, with 57 uses of force causing injury. The McKinney Police Department recorded two instances out of 24,284 stops.
Denton police had the third-highest rate of using injury-causing force, right behind the Houston police and Austin police, according to the Just Liberty study.
But Denton police leaders say the department over-reported its data and claims only five arrests out of the 20,476 traffic stops in 2018 resulted in injury-causing physical force.
Assistant Police Chief Bobby Smith said last week that after the Denton Record-Chronicle asked the department about the study’s findings, a Denton police crime analyst scoured all 86 instances and found the department over-reported because officers filing reports accidentally checked boxes indicating suspects suffered injuries.
“It’s either user error or technological error,” Smith said.
Police spokeswoman Khristen Jones said, “These are traffic stops where, once you go through the narrative and look at [the reports], there was no use of force. They signed their citation and were on their way.”
Policing traffic is a critical component to police work. A traffic stop that may start with an expired tag can sometimes lead to the discovery of a major crime.
An Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Timothy McVeigh about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City less than two hours after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed. The stop was for no license plate, but the trooper found a concealed weapon on McVeigh and arrested him.
“Anything can happen on a traffic stop,” Smith said.
More frequently, traffic stops result in things like citations, driving while intoxicated arrests and drug-possession charges.
Cases like Bland’s, which most agree should have ended with nothing more than a citation, have called attention to overzealous arrests.
The Denton Police Department has shown a responsiveness to how its reputation is affected by even the mention of “use of force.” As police leaders recraft department policy under a new administration, the department has renamed its “use of force” policy to a “response to resistance” policy.
Smith said that if Denton police had indeed recorded 86 instances of injury-causing force, that would be a concern to him and other police leaders.
The author of the Just Liberty study, Scott Henson, said the Sandra Bland Act has helped aid the public in its struggle with police groups who’ve long disputed the legitimacy of claims that police use too much force.
“What I was trying to do is respond to law enforcement saying this never happens, there’s nothing to worry about,” Henson said. “This is an issue that’s been around for a long, long time.”
Henson said other departments have contested the data as well. He said the Austin Police Department incorrectly reported all instances of injury-causing force and not just traffic stops, which skews the assertion that it has the highest use-of-force rate on traffic stops in Texas.
“Denton wasn’t the only one that maybe misunderstood what was asked,” Henson said.
Smith said Denton police will correct its report to TCOLE and will be better prepared in years ahead to report use-of-force data.