For the last several years, the public cry to answer the questions around how law enforcement interacts within the communities it serves left officials with a daunting task. The answers were locked away in mounds of data, collected over decades and largely untouched.
Then in May 2015, President Obama announced that the recommendation from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing would be the basis for the Police Data Initiative (PDI), an effort to use data in communities across the country to better understand trends and issues around policing.
In a summit
held at the White House April 22, government and industry officials gathered with community representatives to review the progress made over the course of the last year.
Among other highlights, officials pointed to the more than doubling of police data programs from 14 initial participating agencies to 53 agencies as a sign of progress. While the number represents a significant boost in PDI participation, there are nearly 18,000 agencies unengaged in the process.
During a panel discussion facilitated by Roy Austin, the deputy assistant to the president for Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity, leading law enforcement agency officials discussed the path forward in the open police data realm.
David Brown, chief of the Dallas Police Department, said transparency efforts in the major Texas city have played a key role in engaging the public and helping to rebuild community trust.
As part of the efforts, 12 years’ worth of officer involved shooting data, including information like the race of both subject and officer, was made publically available in easy-to-read formats.
The ultimate result, Brown said, was a 67 percent reduction in excessive force complaints and a 45 percent reduction in deadly force incidents in 2015.
On average, the chief said the department averaged between 150 and 200 annual complaints. In 2016, only 4 complaints have been lodged and only two officer involved shooting have occurred to date in 2016.
“We believe that holding the small number of officers accountable protects the integrity of the vast majority of officers who uphold the standards of our noble profession,” Brown said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Chief Data Officer Wendy Harn shared the Southern California county’s efforts to publish a host of nine data sets around the shootings.
Harn said a variety of shooting data is broken down into simple, visual snapshots that allow viewers quick access to “hit and non-hit” shootings, unintentional shootings and other shooting incidents.
The repackaging of the data into digestible forms goes beyond the early interpretations of transparency seen in massive data dumps, the CDO said.
“I thought a daily dump of data was being transparent, and it really isn’t being transparent. It’s saying, ‘Here’s my data. Figure it out if you can,’” she said. “So, we really are working hard at saying, 'How do we interpret and tell that story?'”
Despite the growing support for open data initiatives among the various levels of government, Harn said there are a number of challenges to be considered. These include the government structure, deputy buy-in, funding, and the value of open data and the fostering of a chief data office.
Robert Schroeder, assistant chief of the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, said initial conversations around publishing department data were “terrifying” for his agency.
A 2012 executive order from Mayor Greg Fischer outlined a larger course for an open and transparent city government, but Schroeder said early data publications left the public looking for more information.
During the first PDI meeting, Schroeder said a pledge was made to release expanded data sets on crime, vehicle stops, arrests, citations and assaults against officers.
“Our prior work had primed us for that meeting," he said. "We had started the journey but we hadn’t gone really far down the road."
The department has since expanded its available data sets to include employee characteristics, hate crimes and officer-involved shootings. And it is currently working with Code for America to extract officer complaint data as well.
Despite what panelists described as legitimate fears among the larger profession around opening police data, the three collectively agreed their concerns were met with positive results at minimal costs.
“I try to make it a pocketbook issue. People understand pocketbook issues,” Brown said. “Once it becomes a pocketbook issue, it’s an easy conversation on why this data is important to release, why use-of-force data is important to release, why we need to be as transparent as possible and hold officers who might not follow the rules accountable — so that the citizens who pay our salaries will continue to support us when we want raises and other benefits.”