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San Diego Police Use Resident Feedback to Improve Services

By using software from Zencity to collect feedback from residents on community concerns as well as trust in law enforcement, the San Diego Police Department is improving how they patrol the city.

Advocates for police reform want their input, concerns and suggestions for change to be heard by local police; city law enforcement wants to understand community concerns around crime, trust and the role of the police in their neighborhoods. But in today’s hyperpartisan environment, how can police and community members cut through the noise to directly understand each other and make decisions based on respect and nuance? For San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, the answer was data.

In November 2021, the city and its police department rolled out a tool from Zencity that anonymously surveys city residents. The survey asks if residents believe the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) is effective, how much they trust the police department and if they feel safe in their neighborhoods. There is also an open-ended section where residents can add their own concerns about policing and public safety.

According to Capt. Jeff Jordon, there are three overarching goals for this survey tool. The first is to provide a much broader, more diverse perspective than what is typically surfaced during community meetings; in such a large city, the majority of residents aren’t able to or aren’t comfortable attending a city meeting and raising issues publicly. Officials need to be able to benchmark and respond to the community pre-emptively and not just based on complaints about crime or a police action. The survey tool expands community outreach and allows the SDPD to proactively seek out ideas and concerns rather than only responding to a meeting or a complaint. The second goal of the surveys is to identify trends, particularly after major events like violent crimes, such as a recent reported home invasion or a police-involved shooting. The third goal is turning the data into action. Capt. Jordon views this as “true community policing,” as the department can directly shape its priorities and hold officers accountable based on the real-time responses. As Chief Nisleit explained, the SDPD is “using this as a barometer, to go back in and try to fix that community trust.”

Mindful of the need for diverse responses, Zencity utilizes census data to identify demographics like race, age and gender that can be combined with online advertisements for the survey. Chief Nisleit appreciated that an anonymous online survey engages “some of the folks who don’t feel comfortable telling you that they’re fed up with what’s going on” in person.

The department is also aware that some people won’t initially feel comfortable utilizing an app due to fears of tracking or community surveillance. However, the data is collected anonymously, and nothing is tracked to a respondent. Similarly, the department needs to help officers in the community become familiar with the tool and data and contextualize why understanding levels and trends of (mis)trust and community concerns is so important. San Diego officials were able to point to similar Zencity work with police departments in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Seattle to demonstrate the value and importance.

The survey operates as a continual feedback tool, which helps the police understand sentiments and concerns in real time, plus include residents in the work. The survey responses can be broken down by patrol command locations, to support understanding where issues are and how increases or decreases in crime impact the level of trust.

Capt. Jordon explained that the micro and macro data from the survey not only give the city patrol officers greater information about neighborhood concerns, but also improves their performance and ability to effectively engage with their communities. “We’re bringing in the community,” Nisleit said. “This outreach allows us to be a little bit more collaborative. Instead of getting just a small pulse from going to a community meeting, here is a constant feedback tool for us to make impactful changes.”

According to Nisleit, the weekly snapshot reports his office receives haven’t contained any surprises; most residents express concerns around homelessness, drugs and vandalism. The city is processing the data for the public right now, but reported that many of the main concerns are those “quality-of-life issues.” As the SDPD works to translate the data into action, they are also working out a model for policing with nuance — with the community.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.