New survey data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on police interactions in 2019 and 2020 provide the broadest look at relations between police officers and the public. The findings leave a lot to be desired (as they’re primarily pre-pandemic), but the message is clear: police are still a massive presence in our communities, and they don’t always provide the solutions and safety we need.

by Leah Wang, December 22, 2022

At a time when the public desperately needs accurate, comprehensive data about how the police interface with people in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released a new report based on a 2020 survey about interactions between police and the public. Despite a seemingly smaller “footprint” of police interactions in the community that year — fewer people came into contact with police overall — those interactions were still too often racially discriminatory and too often involved improper or harmful conduct.1

You might expect that this survey would tell us about the state of policing amidst the deep social unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of high-profile police killings. Unfortunately, the survey was conducted between January and June of 2020, so many of the responses actually refer to experiences with police in 2019 and in the earliest months of 2020.2 And while the Bureau of Justice Statistics did thoughtfully document certain changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic in other data collections,3 the police contact survey results fail to provide the public with critical and timely information about how policing changed — or didn’t change — in 2020, particularly during the nationwide reckoning with racialized police violence after the death of George Floyd. Still, some of the findings got our attention.

Graph showing that police use or threaten to use nonfatal force disproportionately on Black, Other and Hispanic people

Of people surveyed4 between January and June of 2020 about their recent experiences with police:

More than 1 in 5 people reported coming into contact with police in the past 12 months. About half of all police contacts were initiated by residents who reached out to the police to report a crime, seek help, or for another reason; the other half were initiated by police, through traffic stops or otherwise approaching or arresting someone. Police actually had less contact with the public in 2020 than in 2018 (the last time this survey was administered), but that is unsurprising given the pandemic-related lockdowns in early 2020.5

graph showing that Black, Hispanic and Other racial groups experience many times more police misconduct than white people

Racial disparities in policing persist, particularly in the threat or use of force. Only 2% of people who had any contact with police experienced the nonfatal threat or use of force6 by police in the past year, but this aggression fell disproportionately on Black, Hispanic, and “Other” (non-Asian, non-white) people. Black people were also nearly 12 times more likely than white people to report that their most recent police contact involved misconduct, such as using racial slurs or otherwise exhibiting bias.

During traffic stops, Black and Hispanic people were the most likely groups to experience a search or arrest. Meanwhile, white people were the least likely to receive a ticket and the most likely just to get off with a warning during a traffic stop. The immense discretion — and lack of accountability — police have when making traffic stops leaves too much room for racially biased questioning and enforcement.7

Older people are vulnerable to harmful interactions with police. More than 1 in 7 people age 65 or older reported police contact, and the number of older people experiencing the threat or use of force nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020.8 Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing force declined among all other age groups. Other data show that arrests of people 65 and older have increased over the past decades, too, unlike overall arrests.9 These concerning trends should spark urgent conversations about the role and training of police when it comes to aging populations.

graph showing that women have experienced a larger increase in the threat or use of force by police compared to men

More and more, police are threatening or using force against women. Women accounted for an alarming 31% of all people experiencing the threat or use of force by police, and over half of women (51%) who experienced threat or use of force in their most recent police interaction reported that such conduct by police was “excessive,” a result which is up a significant 8 percentage points from the last survey in 2018. These findings raise the obvious question: Why are women increasingly targeted by police hostility while men’s police encounters, including arrests, continue to plummet?10

Police act “properly” most of the time, but do they provide solutions to people needing help? Of those who initiated contact with police, most (91%) perceived the police as behaving properly when they showed up, and most (93%) were at least equally likely to contact police in the future, varying little by sex, race and ethnicity, or age. But over a third of people (36%) who contacted police for help felt that the police response didn’t improve their situation. The fact that most people would contact police in the future even when they haven’t been helpful in the past is a clear indication of our dependence on police, and the need for alternatives to policing.


Additional context: Data on law enforcement staffing levels in 2020

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released a number of publications based on regular administrative surveys of law enforcement personnel. These staffing surveys, unlike the Police-Public Contact Survey, actually cover the full calendar year for 2020, when policing was central to national conversations about safety and social justice.

If there’s one timely thing to come out of this recent wave of data, it’s that police were not “defunded” in 2020 — since 2016, the number of full-time staff has barely changed in local police departments (down one-tenth of one percent), and has even slightly increased in sheriff’s offices and federal agencies employing law enforcement. This finding tracks with reports of stagnant or increased budgets in the 2021-22 fiscal year in many police departments nationwide, including 34 of the largest 50 U.S. cities.

Sheriffs and police chiefs also continue to be overwhelmingly white (87% each) and male (99% of sheriffs and 96% of police chiefs). If law enforcement agencies continue to operate at current scales without leadership or staff that actually represent the diversity of their communities, how can they hope to equitably protect and serve those communities?

The results of the 2020 Police-Public Contact Survey and other staffing surveys only scratch the surface of how police function in our communities (for example, the data don’t tell us about police contact by sex and race or ethnicity, obscuring the experiences of women of color and of LGBT people with police), let alone how police interactions shifted throughout the tumultuous first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, these data are essential to assessing whether on-the-ground police interactions are actually happening at a scale that is appropriate, and with outcomes that are safe and appropriate, for issues that actually require police. For many people engaged in the reimagining of public safety, police should have a greatly reduced role in areas like traffic safety and crisis response.

Hopefully, future versions of this survey will help paint a clearer picture of how policing has evolved over the past two years and how advocates and lawmakers can continue to push for change, like halting the overuse of police and jails to respond to the needs of people with economic disadvantages or health needs. As the data show, we’ve yet to see meaningful shifts in policing institutions.


  1. Note that the survey doesn’t cover fatal police interactions, a uniquely American crisis.  ↩

  2. Further, the impact of COVID-19 in early 2020 meant that the survey responses dropped between March and June 2020, when the survey team halted in-person interviews.  ↩

  3. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics documented positive cases, deaths, and expedited releases in prisons and in tribal jail populations, as well as changes in probation and parole in response to the pandemic.  ↩

  4. The Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which is a supplement to the more widely-known National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), followed up with respondents age 16 and older (while the NCVS starts at 12 years old) and asked questions about non-fatal contact with police in the 12 months prior to the interview.  ↩

  5. Compared to 2018, in 2020 there were about 1 million fewer traffic accidents with a police response, 2.7 million fewer traffic stops reported, and almost 1.5 million fewer street stops and approaches.  ↩

  6. In this survey, nonfatal force refers to being handcuffed, pushed or grabbed, hit or kicked, used chemical or pepper spray on, used an electroshock weapon on, pointed or fired a gun at, or used some other type of physical force on.  ↩

  7. For more policy context on “pretextual traffic stops” — when a police officer pulls someone over for a minor violation and uses the stop to investigate an unrelated criminal offense — see this publication from the Pew Research Center.  ↩

  8. In 2018, there were 35,200 instances of a threat or use of nonfatal force during a police interaction with someone age 65 or older; in 2020, there were 69,200, a 97% increase.  ↩

  9. According to analysis of government data by The Marshall Project, there were 30% more arrests of people 65 or older in 2020 than in 2000, while there were 40% fewer total arrests in 2020 than in 2000.  ↩

  10. For example, men’s arrest rates fell by 43% between 1980 and 2019, while women’s arrest rates increased by 19% over the same time period, according to arrest data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (for 1980-2014 and for 2015 onward).  ↩

From a deep dive into the bail industry to new tools for advocates, here are the highlights of our work in 2022.

by Wanda Bertram, December 21, 2022

Didn’t catch everything we published in 2022? We’ve curated a list of some of our best work from this year below. From a deep dive into how the bail industry exploits the legal system and deceives the public, to an extensive database showing where people in state prisons come from, to new tools for advocates, here are the highlights of our recent work:


Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022

Our annual Whole Pie report returned in 2022, after pandemic-related data problems forced us to cancel it last year. The report compiles national data sources to offer the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S. — and where they are being held — two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began. It explains how the pandemic has impacted prison and jail populations, and pieces together the most recent national data on state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and other systems of confinement to provide a snapshot of mass incarceration in the U.S.

whole pie graphic


All Profit, No Risk: How the bail industry exploits the legal system

Our report exposes how commercial bail companies and their deep-pocketed insurance underwriters almost always avoid accountability when they fail to do their one job: ensure their clients’ appearance in court. We explain how the bail industry exploits — and works to expand — six loopholes in the system that allow it to avoid paying up when defendants don’t show up. The report reveals the money bail system is not only cruel to defendants — as our 2016 report Detaining the Poor showed — it is also corrupt beyond repair.

bail explainer graphic


Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations

In a groundbreaking report series, we used a new Bureau of Justice Statistics dataset to provide a demographic picture of the 1 million people in state prisons today. The first report in this series, Beyond the Count, shows that the national prison population comprises people struggling with poverty, substance use disorder, and housing insecurity, people who have been marginalized throughout their lives. (For instance, 38% of people in state prison were arrested for the first time before they were 16 years old.) The data show that not only does this country allow millions of children to grow up in poverty, but many of those children grow up to fill state prisons.

childhood experiences of people in prison statistics chart


Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons

This national report offers the most recent data on the health of people in U.S. state prisons, showing that prisons continue to ignore the plight of people in their care. People in prison suffer from several chronic illnesses and infectious diseases at disproportionate rates — such as hepatitis C, HIV, and mental illness — and prisons fail to get many people the treatment they need. 50% of incarcerated people also lacked health insurance before prison, underscoring the reality that our criminal justice system punishes poverty.


What the end of Roe v. Wade will mean for people on probation and parole

In the 13 states where the fall of Roe is expected to lead to abortion bans (or already has), a total of 216,000 women are on probation or parole. In a short but impactful briefing, we explain why these women are especially affected when states outlaw abortion: Supervision often comes with a ban on out-of-state travel, extending complete state control over someone’s right to choose.


Where People in Prison Come From: The geography of mass incarceration

What communities do people who are incarcerated come from? It’s a simple question with huge implications, and one that, until recently, was impossible to explore. However, thanks to recent reforms to end prison gerrymandering in more than a dozen states, the data is finally available to answer it. We published datasets showing where people in 12 state prison systems come from, down to the county, city, and — in many cases — neighborhood level. We made the data sets publicly available online so that other researchers can use them to better understand how mass incarceration harms communities and correlates with other measures of community well-being.

  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland
  • Colorado
  • Virginia
  • Nevada
  • Washington
  • California
  • Montana
  • Delaware
  • Pennsylvania
  • Connecticut


State of Phone Justice: The problem, the progress, and what’s next

How much should it cost to stay in touch with Mom or Dad when they’re locked up? We built a nationwide database of the (often exorbitant) phone rates in 50 state prison systems, as well as thousands of local jails and other detention facilities of various types. Our data show that while some jails and their phone companies provide calls for as low as 1 or 2 cents a minute, the vast majority charge 10 times that amount or more. Working-class families’ phone call costs are lining the pockets of corporations and boosting jail revenue, and even as regulators and legislators make attempts at reform, companies are finding new ways to price-gouge consumers.

map showing average cost of a jail phone call in every state


Mail scanning: A harsh and exploitative new trend in prisons

In the last 5 years, prisons in at least 14 states have replaced physical mail sent to incarcerated people with scans, we explained in a short report. The same companies that sell phone services to jails are also encouraging prison and jail systems to ban mail, claiming that it will deter dangerous “contraband” from coming in. But there’s no evidence that this policy — which has a chilling effect on family communication and therefore, quite probably, a negative effect on people’s ability to succeed after prison — does anything to make incarcerated people safer.


Advocacy Toolkit

This year we released our new Advocacy Toolkit, a collection of guides and training materials that advocates can use to strengthen their campaigns to end mass incarceration. It provides tips on accessing public records, securing and organizing data, crafting persuasive narratives, and creating impactful visuals. It also includes issue-based guides on protecting in-person visits in prisons and jails, opposing jail expansion, and ending prison gerrymandering.


Insufficient funds: How prison and jail “release cards” perpetuate the cycle of poverty

chart showing cost of release card fees

We’re continuing our work showing how states — often at the encouragement of private companies — look for ways to punish incarcerated people even after their sentence is over. This briefing exposes how prisons and jails are increasingly disbursing the tiny amounts of money people are owed when they’re released via prepaid debit cards. The cards, managed by companies that profit off incarceration, are riddled with fees for everything from checking your balance to making a purchase. Rather than helping people rebuild their lives post-release, these companies are sapping people of the little money they have.


Correctional Contracts Library

Prisons and jails routinely contract with private companies to provide services, such as phone calls, money transfers, commissary, and release cards. Through our work to expose the worst practices in this industry, we’ve developed a large database of contracts and other documents that spell out the terms of the agreements governments have with these companies. For the first time ever, we’ve put these documents together in one place so researchers, activists, policymakers, and journalists can build upon our work to expose the harms of mass incarceration.


This is only a small piece of the important and impactful work we published in 2022. In total, we released 19 reports, more than 35 briefings and blog posts, hundreds of data visualizations, and added hundreds of new items to our Research Library.

Our work is far from over, though. We’ve got big things planned in 2023, when we’ll continue to expose the ways mass incarceration has failed and highlight solutions that keep our communities safe without expanding prisons, jails, and the carceral system.

Please welcome our new Development and Communications Associate, Danielle Squillante!

by Mike Wessler, December 5, 2022

Danielle Squillante

We’re excited to welcome Danielle Squillante, who will serve as our new Development and Communications Associate. In this role, she’ll handle the day-to-day fundraising activities for the organization and help it reach new audiences with its work.

She previously worked for ROCA in Springfield, Mass. as a program manager and education support specialist. Danielle is also a former public school teacher. She has a master’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College.

Welcome, Danielle!

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