Open Data Rebuilds Trust in the Dallas Police Department
In today’s world, information is nearly as valuable as gold. Simply put: Individuals want to be more informed to make better decisions — from where a political candidate gets their funding to how the beef in a hamburger was raised — and getting the facts has never been more important. The same is true when it comes to public safety, especially in light of recent national scrutiny on police conduct and excessive force. Recognizing a need for improved transparency within law enforcement, the Dallas Police Department has successfully launched an open data initiative to encourage full-spectrum information sharing and build trust among local communities.
Transforming with transparency
In 2012, an officer-involved shooting in Dixon Circle, Texas raised controversy among community members as a result of false rumors, media speculation, and lack of factual information. Dallas Police Chief David Brown made a public commitment to improve department transparency for residents and enhance officer accountability.
As part of the initiative to rebuild trust within the community, the police department announced new key policies to boost public transparency and safety, including:
- Notification to the FBI Civil Rights Office of all officer-involved shootings
- Development of a foot pursuit policy
- Enhanced review of digital video recordings by a specialized unit
- An improved consensual search policy
- Mandated Taser training and certification for all officers
Following this new initiative, the department went even further by sharing as much information as possible with the public regarding officer-involved shootings. Data was compiled from as far back as 2003 and presented in graphs, charts, and maps. Comprehensive details on each case were provided, including subjects and officers involved (names, race, gender), geo-coordinates of the incident, subject weapons used, subject medical outcomes (deceased, injured, shoot and miss), and grand jury dispositions.
While sharing personal information regarding the names, race and gender of individuals involved initially raised some safety concerns for officers, the department also recognized that this information was most commonly sought after by members of the community and media, and should be shared. To balance this need with officer safety concerns, a 48-hour window was allotted before officer information is shared to give officers time to notify family, adjust social media privacy settings, and ensure personal safety.
Major Geron of the Dallas Police Department led the data sharing effort and notes that building trust was the bottom line. “There is an inertia in not wanting to give up information in the police field. But you finally come to a point where you realize that the data is the data and if it’s subject to open records, there is no reason to withhold it,” he says.
Dallas was one of the first members of the White House Police Data Initiative, whose mission is to improve the relationship between citizens and police through uses of data that increase transparency, build community trust, and strengthen accountability. After releasing the data on the department website and through local media outlets, the initiative received recognition by the White House.
At the White House Police Data Initiative event in April 2016, Police Chief David Brown remarked, “We believe first that the data we have belongs to citizens and we’re the caretakers of that data. That was a big step to make that our mantra; that the data was the citizens’ data not the police’s data.”
Open data improvements with Socrata
While the data shared by the Dallas Police Department was a major milestone in transparency, the information was still stuck in static PDFs. To improve the way the data was shared, the department partnered with Socrata to implement a cloud-based Open Data platform. Major Geron worked closely with Socrata to develop visualizations that closely resembled the original PDFs so as not to confuse or deter the public from accessing the information. He describes it as: “...dynamic — you can download the data, create your own visualizations, look at the data in many number of ways and it’s to make it easier for the public to do.”
Officially launched in October 2015, Dallas’ new platform got attention right away—including from a media outlet, which tweeted about the improved user-friendly aspects just four hours after the new platform went live.
Enhancing safety & community engagement
Many positive trends in community safety, engagement, and rebuilding trust in the Dallas Police Department have been verified as a result of the open data initiative. Some of these results include:
- Incidents of deadly force have been driven down by 45% since 2015
- In 2016, excessive force complaints have been reduced to four compared to 150-200 average complaints per year before the initiative
- In 2016, there have been two officer-involved shootings compared to 18-25 average shootings per year before
- Dallas has experienced 12 consecutive years of crime decline
What’s more, the police department has seen a sharp decline in data requests from media outlets and community members. “The calls about the data stopped virtually overnight,” shares Major Geron. “The data was widely disseminated and we had people looking at the website and it made the open records request for officer-involved shootings drop to zero—I can’t remember the last time we’ve gotten a call for data.”
The department has also shifted its focus to community engagement programs, including Coffee With Cops, which connects community members with police officers outside of a law enforcement situation. Programs like these are designed to help rebuild trust and positive relationships between officers and the public.
Officers also participate in de-escalation training and reality based training to prepare officers in moments of high tension to exercise appropriate decision-making when it comes to their safety and the safety of the general public.
“It supports the contact theory—if all contacts are negative, you will form a negative opinion about the police,” explains Major Geron. “If we can create more positive situations, then we’ll have better, longer lasting relationships with the citizens that we service. That will translate to more public support and understanding as well as less use of force.”
While the Dallas Police Department has exceeded expectations for data sharing and transparency, their focus remains on continuous improvement. In addition to their efforts to date, the department has recently published data on the use of force exercised in community cases.
Looking ahead, police leaders hope to expand data sharing to community engagement events, such as youth outreach opportunities, to further develop positive relationships rooted in trust and transparency with local residents. Regardless of how the data is utilized, the Dallas Police Department is proving that open data is a critical asset when it comes to sustainable law enforcement within communities.