As a result of a spate of controversial police shootings and uses of force in the United States, public trust in police has fallen to its lowest point in 22 years. In response, the Obama administration launched the Police Data Initiative in May 2015 to promote transparency, build community trust, and boost police accountability by publishing and analyzing open data in 21 communities across the United States. This is a positive step forward for police departments and citizens, but more needs to be done. To have a transformational impact, police departments nationwide should be required to publish data on these sensitive issues so that the public can have an informed discussion about police conduct.
The Police Data Initiative is based on the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a working group of academics, public safety officials, and civil society leaders formed to identify policing strategies that can reduce crime while building public trust. One of the most significant commitments of the 21 initial participating police departments is to publish a total of 101 data sets that have never been public information, such as statistics on uses of force and officer involved shootings. With this data, the public can better scrutinize police activities, local governments can make more informed decisions about crime-reduction policies, and police officials can better monitor department performance and identify problematic behaviors in their officers. Also as part of the initiative, the U.S. federal government’s chief data scientist and presidential innovation fellows working under the U.S. chief technology officer will partner with civil society groups to develop an “open data playbook” to guide police departments with best practices for making their data public.
Now, three months into the initiative, a handful of police departments have begun to publish some of their data, and Dallas, Texas has made data on officer involved shootings—one of the most anticipated categories of data—publicly available. However, participation in the Police Data Initiative is voluntary and there is no guarantee that these departments will fulfill their commitments. Though many police departments may recognize the value of open data—for example, 26 departments have now elected to publish their data, up from the original 21—good intentions alone are not sufficient to solve the police trust crisis. The federal government should use the efforts of these initial participating departments as a pilot project to identify how to best tailor national requirements for police departments to publish their data. And, as the initiative expands, the open data playbook should identify additional high-priority police datasets that should also be publicly available.
One option to ensure police departments publish their data would be for the federal government to stipulate that if police departments want to continue receiving the hundreds of millions of dollars of funding and equipment that the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies award to state and local police agencies every year, they should have to publish their data to demonstrate their commitments transparency and accountability. Given how substantial this funding is—New York City received $179 million in 2014 from just one Department of Homeland Security program—police departments would likely be much more proactive about sharing their data. For example, federal support levels should hinge on how well police departments identify and publish high-priority data sets. And of course, open police data should have to meet the same standards for usability as federal open data, such as the utilization of machine-readable formats and open licenses.
Another option would be for state governments to step in to require police departments within their borders to publish their data. Just recently, the California Department of Justice launched its OpenJustice initiative, which provides statewide statistics on sensitive police issues: arrest rates, deaths in custody, and law enforcement officers killed or assaulted. Though OpenJustice currently contains just these three data sets, California plans to soon expand the number of open police data sets as well as develop a dashboard to help the public analyze this data.
Making more data available about police departments will be critical to holding them accountable and discovering best practices. The Police Data Initiative is an encouraging start to addressing the police trust crisis, but advocates and policymakers should be already be planning their next steps by looking at how to expand this program nationally and make it permanent.
Image: Tony Webster.