Seattle Police Department: Building Community Trust Through Open Data
The Seattle Police Department, the birthplace of bicycle patrol units, has a track record of innovation and a forward-thinking approach in its publishing of public safety data.
In 2012, a federal investigation over charges of excessive use of force, as well as related concerns regarding officer supervision and internal investigations, resulted in an agreement between the Seattle Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice. The two organizations crafted a reform plan to boost the SPD’s oversight, training, and reporting.
The department achieved extraordinary progress in the reform areas over the following two years, including pioneering the publishing of public safety data. Momentum increased in 2014 with the appointment of Chief Kathleen O’Toole, as well as the launch of SeaStat, the SPD public safety data portal created in partnership with Socrata.
As Mike Wagers, former SPD Chief Operating Officer, notes, “Even before the new chief came in, the department was already doing a tremendous job” of publishing datasets. Within that established culture, Chief O’Toole pushed data transparency efforts into the top reform priorities of the department to further institutionalize them.
“The SPD leadership and patrol officers are extremely motivated to enhance the public trust,” explains Wagers. “This top goal drives the department’s work toward transparency, which manifests in its open data efforts.” It also dovetails excellently with the SPD’s participation in the White House’s Police Data Initiative, an outgrowth of the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Reforms Evolve into Mentorship
Seattle was one of the first cities to participate in the Police Data Initiative. “They asked what datasets we’d be prepared to release,” recalls Wagers. “We were already pushing out so much data,” including 911 calls and incident reports. The SPD is committed to publishing use-of-force data — not in summary form, but the data itself. The published information is valuable when it’s accessible. Old data was stuck in legacy systems, which created numerous obstacles to timely access and use — internally as well as externally. Now, the data is organized, easily available, and efficiently delivered.
Because of its existing work in open data, the SPD has been in a position to mentor other jurisdictions participating in the Police Data Initiative, including hosting the national summit. Seattle’s mentorship extends beyond its fellow 20 initiative participants. “Not a week goes by that we don’t get multiple calls from other departments asking us all kind of things such as how we’re releasing data and how we’re becoming more transparent,” says Wagers. “We’ve learned a lot from [other departments] — they’re struggling through body cams and the public disclosure piece just like us. Post-Ferguson, everyone’s realizing change is needed. Everyone’s talking.” This collaboration in transparency efforts lifts all of the departments.
Privacy Initiative with City Hall
The SPD joined forces with the city’s Chief Technology Officer to cosponsor the City of Seattle’s privacy initiative. Together, they built upon the city’s race
and social justice initiative, promoted a set of guiding privacy principles, and crafted strategies to increase transparency, while also protecting privacy rights of citizens. These efforts will help city departments assess privacy issues around open data.
Wagers sees this as a straightforward issue. He emphasizes the need to create and follow clear business rules around publishing public safety data, and then to incorporate those rules into an automated publishing process. He explains, “you need to release the good, the bad, and the ugly, so the public is confident you’re showing them everything.”
The SPD Portal: Partnership with Socrata
“Our relationship has been tremendous,” states Wagers. “Socrata has been so helpful — we put out a call and we get so much help.” The relationship goes beyond developing the portal: Socrata employees attended the SPD hackathon to listen and provide input. “It’s so great to be able to call upon these technical experts—they understand the data better than we do,” says Wagers.
The portal provides searchable data and customizable visualizations, enabling over 30 researchers to directly analyze incidents and trends. With the portal, anyone can access it, instead of requesting it from the department.
The portal saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the costs of fulfilling information requests. “We don’t have to do data pulls for specific researchers, and that can help prevent and reduce expenditures,” says Wagers.
With the deployment of SeaStat, the department holds meetings every two weeks with partner agencies to discuss the latest information and strategize ways to reduce crime, and bolster community engagement.