The shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, then a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., was a stark wake-up call to the nation. Though police violence and brutality has caused controversy since the establishment of law enforcement, Michael Brown’s killing, along with several others, brought public safety and the means by which law enforcement protects the welfare of the general public under scrutiny. A sequence of racially charged police misconduct incidents has sparked a demand for police interactions with citizens to be public information. The urgency to reform community policing is prominent nationwide. The lack of transparency within police departments intensifies the strained relationship between police officers and the community members they serve.
In an effort to combat crime and improve police-community relations, publishing police data can arm citizens and the police with the information necessary to reduce community violence. The federal government has taken an affirmative stance on increasing open data practices as a means of combating police misconduct. On May 18, 2015, the White House launched the Police Data Initiative, which encourages open data practices to increase transparency and accountability in order to improve community policing. The goal is for police departments to use data and technology to build community trust and inform police departments of gaps in internal policies. One component of this initiative encourages police departments to release at least three data sets previously inaccessible to the public. Such data sets can include uses of force, police pedestrian and vehicle stops and officer-involved shootings. These data sets will help communities access key information on police-citizen encounters. A commitment to cataloging such data will also enhance internal data measures, such as early-warning systems, which can assist police leadership in detecting officers in need of oversight and additional training.
Increasingly, police departments across the country are meeting the public’s demands for more information, and using innovative techniques to increase transparency in their policing tactics. Cincinnati has a complaint data set that displays a description of the offense, where it occurred, the officer’s sex and race, the complainant’s sex and race and the results of the case. Dallas publishes officer-involved shootings, disclosing information about the officer’s name, the victim’s name and the jury’s disposition. Louisville, Ky., lists assaults on officers. Los Angeles County presents a bar chart on gang-related crimes as well as a data set that includes latitude and longitude for data analysts to create maps that could display where there is gang activity in the area. Open data practices in policing can make substantial differences in how departments operate and ensure police departments receive their proper check and balance. In Oakland, Calif., use of force incidents, citizen complaints and police shootings have decreased since the department began using body cameras. Washington D.C.’s mayor is developing a policy to ensure public access to body-cam video by allowing private citizens to obtain copies of video captured on street corners, during traffic stops and other outdoor areas.
Citizens would be able to access this data through a city’s open data portal. Using data analysis, data intermediaries can assist police departments in ensuring the data on the portal is up to date, machine-readable and has context to explain the narrative behind the numbers. The information should be presented not only on the open data portal, but also in PDF format to ensure that data literacy is not a barrier for residents to access and understand this information. By releasing data, police departments are able to show positive trends in policing techniques while also being transparent about areas of improvement. Citizens will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate evidence to hold their department accountable for any discrepancies in department practices.
Information empowers people and drives innovation. Open data practices in policing can make substantial differences in policing practices and interactions between the police and community members. Police departments in the state of Michigan can be leaders in responding to the growing nationwide call to make police data publically accessible by joining the Police Data Initiative. Open data allows citizens and police officers to work collaboratively and authentically to keep communities in Michigan safe.
Alexis Farmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.