When many current law enforcement leaders were beginning their careers, the term “open data” was not frequently used within the field of law enforcement. Historically, many police chiefs preferred the opposite end of the information sharing spectrum. Reports about internal investigations, use of force, employee demographics, officer-involved shootings, and countless other types of information were shielded from public view behind a wall of silence. However, this strategy contributed to the erosion of citizens’ perceptions of police officers as honest, trustworthy, and accountable public servants. The reality of fractured community-police relations came to light when several high-profile cases regarding police use of force occurred across the United States. The growing conflict between community members and their local law enforcement bubbled over, sparking protests and fueling anti-police rhetoric. The conversation surrounding these incidents focused on biased policing practices, the use of excessive force, and racism in law enforcement.
Shortly after a series of these high-profile events, then-U.S. President Barack Obama established a task force to study effective policing practices and community-police relations. In May 2015, after six months of intensive study, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its final report. The report identified six pillars, or topics, that are recommended areas of focus for progressive law enforcement leaders who want to improve police administration and operations. The very first pillar was identified as “Building Trust & Legitimacy.”1 The importance of this pillar cannot be overstated. Any successful law enforcement agency today rests on a foundation of trust, accountability, and professionalism. Without that foundation, an undercurrent of mistrust and misperception is likely within the community. A single event in that community or any other city or town can cause that agency’s reputation to crumble overnight.
With a renewed recognition of the importance of transparency and accountability, progressive law enforcement leaders are working to address that critical first pillar. One effective strategy at building trust and legitimacy with community members is for police administrators to pull back the blue curtain and allow open access to information regarding agencies’ activities. Historically, law enforcement agencies have been effective at producing and releasing crime data with regard to what police respond to. For example, data regarding the number of burglaries, car thefts, or murders has generally been easily recorded and shared by law enforcement personnel. However, administrators have been wary about releasing data regarding how officers respond to certain incidents and data that addresses broader community questions: How often do officers use force? What are the demographics of an agency’s sworn staff? Do officers receive training in race relations and implicit bias? How often are officers involved in shootings? What are the demographics of people who are being pulled over and issued motor vehicle citations? These are common questions that today’s police leaders are facing from community members and media personnel. In order to build trust, law enforcement leaders must be able to answer these questions openly and with certainty.
Police Data Initiative
In May 2015, the White House unveiled the Police Data Initiative (PDI). This is a collaborative effort that encourages law enforcement leaders, technology experts, and researchers to work together toward creating and releasing open data. What is open data? Open data is information that is freely available and that can be taken, shared, republished, and used by others. The data must be readable by machines and available in one “grab” (as opposed to copying data one line at a time). Police data sets could, for example, include information regarding employee demographics, use of force, officer-involved shootings, or community outreach efforts. Because this is a recent and still-developing concept, there is currently a great deal of flexibility regarding the types of information an agency chooses to make public.
There are many advantages to an agency’s participation in the Police Data Initiative (PDI) and to making information accessible to the public. The first benefit is exactly what the President’s Task Force identified: producing (and releasing) open data builds trust and accountability with the public and strengthens community-police relations. A second benefit is that PDI provides a platform for agencies to share their own narratives. Frequently, departments that proactively share data as part of the PDI include a corresponding written text that explains the table and addresses specific aspects that are noteworthy. This platform allows an agency to tell its own story, instead of releasing numbers to the media and allowing outside sources to make their own interpretations. Thirdly, sharing data reduces public records inquiries. Instead of managing inquiries regarding use-of-force data or employee demographic data, records managers can simply refer people to the agency’s data portal on their website or other data access point. Another benefit is quick internal access to useful data for grant writing, budget preparation, and community conversations. A centralized location for all department data keeps everyone on the same page, and when members of an agency attend public events, are interviewed by the press, participate in public forums, or communicate with the public in other ways, this centralized database serves as a reliable source of facts that everyone can use. Finally, producing and publishing data provide an opportunity for introspection. Data can be revealing, and police supervisors and administrators can use the information to improve both administrative and operational practices within an agency.
It’s clear that committing to open data and releasing previously protected information about policing practices have many benefits. So, how does one go about joining the PDI and begin releasing data?
Step 1: After doing some quick online research to become familiar with the PDI, agency leaders should speak with other city leaders about joining the program. If a city has a mayor or a city council, it’s wise to talk with them first to explain the initiative and to ensure that community leaders support the concept.
Step 2: Email the Police Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org) and request to join the PDI. They maintain a website with current contact information listed clearly. It is required that participating agencies commit to releasing a minimum of three data sets.
Step 3: Identify a team of people who will be assigned to work on this project. Some communities might create a small PDI team within their agency composed only of police personnel. Others might choose to build a collaborative team that includes both civilians and police. Either is acceptable; however, input from civilian personnel offers new perspectives from an “outsider’s” point of view. Civilians reviewing data tables and associated text stories are likely to help to reduce insider jargon and ensure clarity for non-police readers.
Step 4: Once a team is established, create a plan for meeting times and locations. Someone from the law enforcement agency will need to coordinate the team and oversee scheduling.
Step 5: During the first meeting, work with the team to identify what data sets the group wants to explore and then prioritize them. For example, if the team wants to create data sets on employee demographics, use of force, community outreach activities, internal investigations, and employee training, it might be good to start with something simple, like employee demographics, to get the project off the ground and to begin understanding the process. The next data set might be use of force, which is likely of great interest to community members and therefore a high priority, but which is also likely to be more complicated. A team might come up with 3 or 25 data sets. Whatever number it is, the team should prioritize them and begin working from the top down. It is helpful to have direction and goals as the team works together over time.
Step 6: Develop a plan for how data will be collected and released. There are two ways to go about this objective. Smaller agencies may decide that someone can collect and produce data by hand. A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is the easiest and most common method. For example, a simple data set such as employee demographics could be easily entered into a spreadsheet using different columns for race and gender. The downside of hand-collecting data is that it is incredibly time consuming and larger data sets may be harder to create. An additional concern with the hand collection of data is the room for human error during the retrieval and calculation processes. For larger agencies, or those that do not want to collect data by hand, there are tech companies that have already partnered with the PDI to assist law enforcement agencies with data collection. Outside companies can link into existing computer networks and extract data directly. The benefits of using an outside data collection company are many, but the biggest benefit is the significant staff time and effort that will be saved. Of course, the downside is that this service typically comes with a hefty price tag, so for some communities, the cost is not feasible.
Step 7: Create a place where data will be released. For most agencies, data will be accessible on a website or social media page. Many participating agencies including Burlington, Vermont, Police Department; Northampton, Massachusetts, Police Department, and Seattle, Washington, Police Department are great examples of agencies who are participating in the PDI and who have easy access to data via their websites. It will likely be necessary to work with the agency’s website designer to create this new space where data will be found and provide a path for people to find it. There are many different ways to display and view data. The Public Safety Open Data Portal on the Police Foundation’s website includes links to all of the data sets from participating agencies. There is wide variation among participating agencies, and agencies should consider what they want their data to look like once they are released.
Step 8: Write and put out a press release. The simple step of committing to release data and to work toward building trust is a great way to begin strengthening community-police relationships. Law enforcement leaders should draw attention to this commitment and to the agency’s efforts toward transparency.
Step 9: Maintain ongoing open data team meetings to create data sets until the job is done. Once a data set is chosen, the team needs to decide what the data will look like and what information will be included. Should the data set include the date; the type of incident; the age, race, and ethnicity of the subject; the age, race, and ethnicity of the officer; the weapons involved, injuries to subjects or officers, any outcome of the call—or any combination thereof? Every community may choose to include or exclude certain categories. The team meetings are held to make these decisions, to assess data tables, and to provide feedback. It is useful to do some research by reviewing data sets from other agencies when starting a new data set.
Step 10: Create tables. The person in charge of a department’s PDI will either create the tables for new data sets by hand or work with an outside software company to produce them. Once tables are created, they should be reviewed by the team.
Step 11: Release the data internally to department members first. Nobody likes to learn something new about their workplace by reading it in the paper. Effective leaders communicate with staff to ensure that everyone is in the loop and, sometimes, as in this case, to solicit feedback. Give employees a chance to view the data and to share their thoughts.
Step 12: Write the accompanying story. One of the many benefits about releasing data is that the agency producing the data has the opportunity to share its thoughts about the data. For example, perhaps there are trends that the department would like to draw attention to—including a narrative with the data is a chance to accomplish that.
Step 13: Release the data! Once the data have been suggested, researched, created, reviewed by the team, and shared internally, the data set is ready to be released.
Step 14: This cycle of meeting and creating new data sets will continue for some time until the team feels that the data are complete. There is no reason to rush through this process, and it does take some time. The quality of the data is far more important than the quantity. Anyone taking this on should recognize that it may take some time to reach a point where it is agreed that all the necessary tables and information has been shared. Of course, a time may come when there is reason to create a new table or change an existing one to share more information with the public. The information that is released is fluid, and additions or modifications can always be made.
Step 15: Keep data current. When people are seeking information, it is important that the tables are current. Those agencies that opt to complete tables by hand are likely to update data quarterly, every six months, or even annually. It may simply be too much work to do it more frequently. Any of those options are fine, as long as that information is included with the table. Departments that choose to work with an outside company to extract data will find that tables fill in almost immediately and can be updated within minutes or hours of a call. These companies also offer “as-it-happens” maps that show current police activity. They have other options, including comparison charts and graphs, phone apps that officers on the street can use to enter data, and other specialized features.
Joining the PDI and agreeing to open data and sharing information with the public are part of an excellent strategy to build and strengthen community trust. It takes some time and effort to get the program off the ground and to establish data tables; however, once they’re established, the maintenance effort is very little, while the benefits continue.
1 Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), 23.