Open Data — Bringing Police and Community Together

October 14, 2015 9:18 am PST | Data as a Service, Public Safety
Photo: Tyler Gamble/New Orleans Police Department

Citizens generally seem to view their police departments in one of three ways today:

  • “I don’t trust the police; the police has it out for people like me”
  • “I’m indifferent; The police is largely irrelevant unless I’m involved in some kind of situation or emergency that requires help from them”
  • “I trust the police; the police and I share the responsibility for the safety of our community”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ opinion of the nation’s roughly 18,000 state and local police departments is one of indifference, and a growing number of people see police in that first, negative light. Meanwhile, the recent series of tragic shootings and deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement authorities have further brought to the surface the corrosive divide that exists between many police departments and the communities they serve.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Long-held opinions of police departments are changing rapidly. And the very good news is that police departments themselves welcome — and are driving — this change in the way they engage with their communities.

So, despite the cynicism, mistrust and even antipathy that is currently being directed at law enforcement officials in some quarters, there is a tremendous opportunity to bridge this divide and start constructive conversations and collaborations between the police and citizens in communities all across the country.

And the catalyst, in my opinion, is public safety data from police departments. Data is pivotal in this discussion because it generates facts, and facts lead to better decisions and action plans.

I know this data won’t bring the victims of police misjudgment or over-reaction back to life; nor will it dramatically improve social justice overnight, eliminate urban violence or fully heal centuries-old racial wounds. But, if it’s comprehensible to the average person, comparable between different police departments, and sharable among all interested parties, law enforcement data can stimulate a much-needed and highly productive dialogue about the best methods and approaches for improving public safety in the United States.

Put another way, if we publish in an available, accessible and understandable manner, reliable data about police response time, use of force, complaints, officer-involved shootings, assaults on officers, citations, pursuits and traffic and pedestrian stops, this transparency and knowledge can foster community trust, boost citizen engagement, increase police accountability, spur process improvements in law enforcement, alter behaviors on both sides and lead to healthier, more constructive relationships between the police and the communities they serve.

Data is an under-utilized resource, and an often-ignored strategic asset, in law enforcement today. But without open, credible, and accessible data, which helps provide context, narrative, insights and intelligence, police departments will continue to watch the news media step in, fill the vacuum, and satisfy the public’s desire for explanation.

But journalism just isn’t a substitute for the rigor that open data analysis can ultimately provide.

Indeed, accurate measurement of law enforcement data and the facts it generates can help us reconcile perception versus reality when it comes to overall and ongoing police practices and performance.

Bill Gates, who has focused on solving some of the world’s most intractable problems over the past two decades, has reinforced this point. In his 2013 annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he wrote: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”

So, if truthful data, reliable measurement and transparent, easy-to-grasp reporting are the precursors to solving complex global health and education challenges, they’re also likely the first steps in addressing difficult social unrest challenges related to the relationships between law enforcement agencies and their communities.

Part of the untold story is that many police departments already recognize this possibility.

More than 40 police departments and law enforcement agencies, for example, have agreed to report data to UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which has been working to develop the first database tracking national statistics on police behavior, including stops and use of force.

Another effort, the White House Police Data Initiative, has gained the voluntary support of 21 police departments in the U.S. that have volunteered to release data on use of force, pedestrian and vehicle stops and officer-involved shootings.

These programs reflect the growing momentum for better data collection on the use of force in police departments nationwide. And so does the Police Reporting of Information, Data and Evidence (PRIDE) Act, introduced in June by Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The PRIDE Act, which expands on an existing law that requires states to report shootings and uses of police force only when they result in a death, seeks to push data collection efforts ahead by requiring states to record and report to the Department of Justice all cases in which an officer shoots, causes serious bodily harm to or kills a civilian. To promote involvement by law enforcement agencies that have the will to participate but lack the resources, the proposed legislation authorizes the creation of new federal grants.

This isn’t the first time that the federal government has sought to gather and disseminate law enforcement data.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 requires the Department of Justice to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and to “publish an annual [report] of the data acquired.”

Despite its nascent efforts in this realm, however, the federal government is still without a reliable and comprehensive system for collecting and disseminating accurate law enforcement data — especially when it comes to the violence and assault directed at police officers or the use of force by the police. There is also no mandate requiring state and local police departments to gather and post law enforcement data.

Even if there­­ were, accurately quantifying and seamlessly analyzing police behavior is complicated.

First of all, technology systems within many city governments still aren’t interconnected. In addition, police precincts within a number of cities have yet to be networked for the exchange of data. There’s also the issue of privacy, which must be maintained. And, finally, law enforcement data analysts must wrestle with inconsistent definitions. A case in point — “Death” and “Death in the Process of Arrest” from two different precincts in the same city, or two different police departments thousands of miles apart, could mean the same thing or something that’s very different.

A growing number of police departments in the U.S. may want to open their data up to the public in a form that is easy to find, use and understand. But the vast majority of these 18,000 organizations are small and have no one trained in data science.

As a result, we have to find ways to educate police personnel so they have data, coding and software / app development skill-sets.

This is already unfolding in New Orleans, where citizen engagement and trust in the police received a real lift when a 15-year-old girl taught New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison how to write his first line of code.

Police departments are now beginning to deploy body cameras, a good technology investment that will help provide more documentation and accountability as well as better policing.

Another good technology investment is being made by police departments in predictive analytics that prevent criminal activity from gaining a foothold in communities, although I have questions about the potential for racial profiling with this solution.

But neither of these major technology adoptions removes the need for opening up broad swaths of law enforcement data and publishing this information in a well-organized and simple-to-understand format so that everyone in the community can better understand what the police is doing, doing well and doing less than well.

This open-minded approach to open data offers tremendous possibilities, no matter how strained the relationship between the police and the people in a community may be.

Several years ago, for example, the police department in Rutland, Vermont, faced with allegations of excessive force, had to cope with major mistrust from the city’s 17,000 residents. To regain standing, the police started reaching out to the community by releasing certain crime data in summary form.

Now the Rutland Police Department is compiling and releasing more comprehensive and accessible data on crime incidents and arrest reports, incidents of use of force and community meetings attended by police officers.

In the past, information was associated with power. If you held, or hoarded, data and knowledge, you had the edge. But that’s not the case today as police departments start opening up, simplifying, and disseminating their crime and operational policing data.

By sharing their data with the community in a transparent and understandable way, police departments are finding that their stature among citizens is growing; their effectiveness as a law enforcement authority is increasing; their ability to communicate with residents is expanding; and, perhaps most importantly, public trust of the policing process is deepening.

These are major steps forward as we try to bring the police and the people closer together in our country today.

For more information or to speak to a data expert, please visit Socrata for Public Safety

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