Communities throughout the United States have called for reforms to address disparities in police uses of lethal force, but effective reform requires something that has been missing from the national conversation: an authoritative database of police shootings in the United States that can be used to assess where these incidents happen, with what frequency, and involving what groups of individuals. Lacking comprehensive and reliable data that clarify the nature and extent of these incidents, it has been difficult to drive a productive conversation on reform efforts that addresses the concerns of local communities, clarifies how well or poorly local law enforcement agencies are performing, or assesses whether recent reform efforts have produced desired results. 

SPOTLITE was designed to address all three gaps by creating data that strengthens systems for localized accountability and that supports evidenced-based reforms. SPOTLITE provides an authoritative record that can build trust by improving accountability.



When power is placed in the hands of the few to serve the needs of the many, it is important to ensure that such power is exercised in accountable ways. In politics, accountability happens when citizens vote representatives in or out of office on the basis of what they promise, what they have accomplished, and what they have left undone. Accountable policing is harder to achieve. Existing mechanisms of accountability are often hidden from public view, and many communities lack credible and authoritative information about their policing agencies. These communities need to have accurate information about the actions of their officers and how those actions compare to those of officers in other communities around the country. 

Healthy systems of accountability are a good thing both for law enforcement agencies and for the communities they serve. Accountable policing builds trust when communities can be confident that inappropriate uses of force are exposed, and when police can convincingly demonstrate that their authority has been used in appropriate ways. SPOTLITE supports both of these goals by capturing basic information—who, what, where, and when—every time police use lethal force. And because SPOTLITE data are produced by academic researchers whose primary concerns are providing highly-credible and authoritative information about difficult-to-study events using transparent methods and measures, all sides can have confidence in the quality of information maintained in the SPOTLITE registry. 

The initial data layer for SPOTLITE consists of county-level counts of lethal force incidents over time. These incident counts help local communities keep accurate records of the uses of lethal force by police, and details about these incidents can be used by local residents to conduct their own investigations into the circumstances of each incident that go far beyond the information that SPOTLITE currently provides. Communities can use SPOTLITE data to assess when, where, and how frequently local law enforcement agencies have used lethal force in the past. SPOTLITE provides communities with authoritative evidence that can be used to clarify where and when reform is needed, as well as whether reform efforts are having their intended effects.

SPOTLITE also provides county-level data that helps communities identify the racial and ethnic characteristics of civilians involved in these incidents. These high-credibility data can be used by communities and researchers to better understand when and to what degree lethal force incidents disproportionately affect members of particular racial or ethnic groups. Currently data on the racial/ethnic characteristics of involved civilians are available for Illinois only, but the SPOTLITE team is already at work to extend this data layer to cover the entire country.

While the initial SPOTLITE release consists of only county-level incident records, as SPOTLITE grows it will eventually allow communities to compare specific agencies, and also to compare local rates of lethal force incidents against statewide and national benchmarks. This will empower communities to more clearly identify when their policing agencies are performing poorly and when they are performing well compared to other agencies around the state and country. Community members and researchers will be able to statistically compare law enforcement organizations, and identify jurisdictions with unusually high (or low) rates of lethal force incidents. These analyses can be leveraged to inform the design of best practices and model use of force policies. Additional planned SPOTLITE data layers will enable community-based researchers and advocacy groups to identify when policing agencies have unusually high rates of lethal force incidents affecting distinctive subgroups of civilians. These data will also underpin efforts by those researchers and advocacy groups to devise the necessary policies, procedures, and training interventions that can effectively produce improvements in policing outcomes.

The initial data layer for SPOTLITE consists of county-level counts of lethal force incidents over time. These incident counts help local law enforcement agencies maintain accurate public records of their uses of lethal force. Since consensus-building between law enforcement and community groups is difficult without a common set of facts that can be trusted by all sides, SPOTLITE can help to build a shared understanding between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve by clarifying the historical record of police uses of lethal force. 

Additional features planned for SPOTLITE will provide data that policing agencies can use to improve the legitimacy of their law enforcement activities by helping them devise the necessary policies, procedures, and training programs for effectively producing more equitable policing outcomes. Future SPOTLITE additions will also help law enforcement agencies improve officer safety and develop a better understanding of situational characteristics associated with lethal uses of police force. This will help police to develop a more systematic assessment of risk factors associated with lethal uses of force and officer injuries than most jurisdictions have the resources to conduct for themselves. 

As SPOTLITE grows, it will allow law enforcement leaders to compare their own local rates of lethal force incidents to national trends to better contextualize local law enforcement practices against the records of other communities and to learn from the reform efforts of other law enforcement agencies. SPOTLITE data will help police clarify for communities how their performance fits into larger patterns by showing when an agency’s uses of lethal force are above or below levels observed in other communities. As we work toward realizing all five elements of the founding vision for the program, SPOTLITE will provide new forms of high-credibility data for shaping interventions that will produce more equitable outcomes, reduce the loss of life and trauma caused by unnecessary uses of lethal force, increase officer safety, and improve relationships between police and the communities they serve.

The broad outline for what would become the SPOTLITE project was first developed in 2017, when the Cline Center convened a nationally-representative stakeholder summit at the University of Illinois campus to forge a consensus vision of the kind of data on police uses of lethal force that would be required to move conversations forward on the topics of police reform and improve the legitimacy of American law enforcement. The stakeholder summit included a diverse set of nationally-recognized criminal justice researchers (including the founder of Fatal Encounters) as well as representatives from leading advocacy groups (including the NAACP, ACLU-Illinois, Center for Policing Equity, and the Invisible Institute) and law enforcement leadership groups (including International Association for the Chiefs of Police, Police Executive Research Forum, and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association). Participants in this stakeholder summit emerged with a consensus vision for a new data-gathering effort that would illuminate systematic racial injustices in American policing and inform new policies for improving police practices. They agreed that: (1) an authoritative source of high-quality data on specific uses of lethal force is necessary; (2) these data should meet high academic standards for accuracy, open accessibility to communities, and respect for privacy; (3) the unit of observation must be the decision to use lethal force, capturing both lethal outcomes and non-fatal shootings; (4) the effort should be scalable to the national level and be capable of producing data in nearly real time; and (5) these data should provide rich detail by describing the situational circumstances, the persons involved, and the aftermath of each event. This shared consensus across advocacy groups, law enforcement groups, and academic experts became the founding vision for the SPOTLITE project. The present version of the SPOTLITE dashboard represents only the first step in reaching this larger vision. We are working toward realizing all five elements of this consensus vision, at national scale, in a dynamic registry that can be updated soon after incidents occur.

Realizing the first step toward that larger vision required the data science expertise of the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research and its network of research collaborators. Cline Center datasets on small-scale protest events and acts of political violence are used in top-tier scientific journals, classrooms around the world, corporate risk management assessments, and forecasting competitions funded by the intelligence community. The Cline Center’s successful record of collaborating with practitioners and advocates to tackle a range of societal challenges threatening human flourishing was a strong fit to the task of building SPOTLITE, as was the diverse talents of scores of undergraduate and graduate student researchers who work with the Cline Center to analyze and extract insights from news content at global scales. These student researchers, led by the Cline Center’s staff team of research professionals and its expansive network of faculty collaborators, spent four years of continuous testing and refinement of research methods following that 2017 stakeholder summit to produce the SPOTLITE system. 

- Includes police shootings that result in deaths, police shootings that only result in injuries, as well as police shootings that do not result in either deaths or injuries

- Includes other uses of police force that result in deaths

- National coverage

- Ongoing data collection

- Provides incident-level data for each use of lethal force

- Includes information on ascribed racial/ethnic characteristics of involved civilians (currently for Illinois only)

- Provides individual-level data for each incident (currently for Illinois only)

- Confirms each incident with a reliable source 

- Downloadable data designed to be compatible with other datasets

- Transparent methods and measures compatible with best practices in open science