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Breaking Down Data Silos Would Add Tremendous Value, Disrupt Policing as We Know It

That type of data made available by police and health departments leads to easy-to-implement solutions that work for everyone.

Throughout the recent White House Frontiers Conference, one theme has been constant: Crafting a future that's all-inclusive for everyone, no matter their race or income level.

This sentiment was enforced by U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil during a talk about the future of criminal justice systems. By working across departments and sharing data, he said, members of law enforcement can work closely with public health departments and members of academia to ensure the best techniques are used to treat individuals.

To offer the perspective from law enforcement, Knoxville, Tenn., Police Chief David Rausch explained that police departments really need to be seen as, “peace officers, not law enforcers.”

With the amount of big data resources now available, data scientists like Rayid Ghani, director of Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, can help the problem. If risk factors can be identified and the individual officers can receive help, it can have a tremendous impact for anticipating and avoiding officers involved in "adverse interactions."

For instance, simple steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an officer having to use force, according to some of Ghani's findings.

“Two of the indicators we found," he said, "were that officers who respond to a lot of suicide cases and officers who respond to a lot of domestic abuse cases, especially involving children, were much higher risk.”

These officers would benefit from a "cool-down" period following those types of traumatic events.

That type of data available for academics and data scientists leads to easy-to-implement solutions that work for everyone. So much of what needs to be worked on is the whole person.

According to Monica Bharel, commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health, nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated suffer from some sort of addiction. Opening up previously siloed law enforcement data to state and local health departments can add tremendous value.

“We've all been working in out different silos and through that work we've all had small progress,” said Bharel. “When we talk about disruption it's really important to think about… when we start to take existing data and bring it together we also bring the sectors together.”

In Massachusetts, Bharel was proud to explain how the Department of Health and local law enforcement was able to come together to take on the opiate crisis.

All the departments, though they may be looking through different lenses are all trying to solve the same problem. “We are living in the age of big data,” said Bharel.

The Knoxville Police Department has served as a model of how data analytics and cross-departmental cooperation can have a positive effect on both police and communities in which they operate. The force hasn’t had an officer-involved shooting since July 2014 largely due to four strategies developed with city agencies:

  1. Engaging communities in less of a law enforcement capacity
  2. Educating officers and getting grants for employees to pursue 4-year degrees
  3. Stabilizing work conditions by making more regular shifts
  4. Training officers in communication and repositioning techniques
One of the biggest obstacle that gets in the way is people’s egos, according to Rausch. A lot of people think they are a lot smarter than they are, and to truly fix a problem, people have to admit what they know and what they don't know.

With all the recent news about officer-involved shootings and seemingly growing gap of trust between police and communities the problem is greater than ever. But for Bharel, she is more optimistic than ever.

"We are coming together, better than ever," Bharel said, noting that for too long, departments had not interacted together, "but we are now coming together across sectors to treat the whole person.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.