From Warriors to Guardians: Police, Open Data, and Public Trust

October 5, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service

America continues to reel from high-profile, disturbing news reports about police use of force. In recent years, a global audience has witnessed the nation’s communities take their concerns on public safety to neighborhood meetings, city streets, and courthouses, as well as to social media 24/7.

With officer body cams, patrol car dash cams, and citizens recording police encounters on smartphones, the viewing of public safety concerns has been constant, and the conversations have been highly charged. It’s also been hard to quantify, and consequently difficult to translate individual incidents into better public policy. Then came 2014’s White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Leadership From the Top

The Obama Administration, through executive actions, made a concerted effort to shift the public safety landscape in the United States. It started with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to take the country away from the previous decades’ “warrior” mentality of tough-on-crime policing, to a new “guardian” philosophy that promotes ideals of community partnership and protection.

The Task Force in turn gave birth to the Police Data Initiative, launched by the White House in 2015. The initiative takes the needs for transparency and openness in public safety data identified by the Task Force, and puts them into action in 21 cities around the nation.

The initiative’s efforts are helping build new data systems, create more insightful policing, and increase public access to datasets on topics like citizen complaints and officers’ use of force. These models can be shared and built upon, spreading the guardianship philosophy from coast to coast.

Case Study: Camden, New Jersey

President Obama officially kicked off the Police Data Initiative in Camden, New Jersey, one of the 21 participating cities. “Just a few years ago,” remarked the president in his speech, “this city was written off as dangerous beyond redemption — a city trapped in a downward spiral.” He said, “Two years ago, the police department was overhauled to implement a new model,” and specifically called out Police Chief Scott Thompson’s breakthrough focus on community policing. The president listed Camden’s inspiring results, including a reduction of violent crime by 24 percent, and of 911 response time from one hour to five minutes. Then he noted, “Perhaps most significant is that the police and residents are building trust.”

Thompson’s leadership and the police department’s transformation captured the White House’s attention, and delivered tech help to Camden. President Obama noted, “Here in Camden, officers deal with some 41 different data systems, which means they have to enter the same information multiple times.” That onerous repetition not only opens the door to data error, it also keeps officers at the screen and away from the neighborhoods they serve. Additionally, the 41 systems weren’t designed to work together, so policy analysts and civic tech enthusiasts would lose time trying to extract the data, instead of maximizing time spent learning from it.

The Police Data Initiative brought in a team of tech experts to redesign Camden’s data system, in partnership with police department staff. The improved data — both input and output — will enable officers to build on their department’s transformation. Not only will they have accurate, actionable data in hand, they’ll also have more time to engage with citizens, allowing them to better serve their communities. Then, through open source best practices, this work can be shared with and built upon by any police department, anywhere.

What Data Should You Publish?

Publishing public safety datasets prompts questions and concerns, on top of the ones from the news that trouble the nation. Which datasets should be released? What are the legal issues? The Police Data Initiative provides some guidance to communities, starting with its initial two areas of focus: Use open data to increase transparency, build community trust, and support innovation; and use technology to identify problems early, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate uses of force.

The main refrain of the guardianship philosophy, though, is to build community trust — and in some towns, to rebuild it. To do that, different data may be more relevant or important in different cities. While refreshingly open, that approach can also leave each jurisdiction working hard to set up its own priorities and boundaries. Communication between leadership and officers on the beat, and between police chiefs and elected officials, as well as ongoing public engagement, can help navigate the process. Transparency in goals and planning are also key.

Get help building trust and engaging your community from Socrata for Public Safety.

Next Steps: Get in on the Discussion

Join us for a public safety panel at the Socrata Customer Summit to explore issues around data and public safety. Emily Shaw, Deputy Policy Director of the Sunlight Foundation; Mike Wagers, Seattle PD COO; and Denice Ross, White House Presidential Innovation Fellow and co-leader of the President’s Police Data Initiative will discuss ways to help your community join the new public safety landscape.


Learn more about Socrata for Public Safety


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