What do we want? Data about police practice!

Blue and white police tape
Photo Credit: Ian Britton

For those following developments in police accountability, last week was a good week.

The most momentous news surely has to be Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government would be ending the Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture program. In terms of scale of reform, this appears to be the end of a policy that since 2001 has collected billions from local motorists with little accountability or meaningful oversight. There is still a lot of work to be done to reform state-level laws that allow law enforcement to confiscate people’s property without accusing them of a crime, but the impact of this national-level change will give that work an exceptional head start.

Less surprising, but no less important, we witnessed continued public movement toward improving the federal collection of data about police action. Holder’s second-most impressive statement from the week concerned his call for the federal government to collect better national data about law enforcement-related death, by improving the collection of data both about deaths caused by police officers and the killing of police officers. This builds on December’s passage of the Death in Custody Reporting Act and answers calls from national groups to fully implement the attorney general’s existing mandate to issue accurate national data on use of force by U.S. police. (In the absence of the government’s fulfillment of this requirement, nongovernmental actors have been trying to fill the void: Fatal Encounters and the more recent Deadspin police shooting tracker represent the two largest-scale national efforts to track police use of force.)

In addition to this positive governmental news, stakeholders from a range of perspectives have been affirming the idea that improved access to data about police will improve accountability and public trust. Last week began with the first meeting of the President’s Task Force on Twenty-First Century Policing, a group led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, with the charge “to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” (A schedule of the task force’s upcoming public hearings is available here and video of last Tuesday’s event is available here.) The task force’s D.C. meeting collected public testimony through a series of panels that were formulated to reflect varied communities and perspectives, including a variety of community and advocacy organizations, academics, heads of law enforcement and mayors.

Panel attendees were all asked to provide their opinion on the measures that would achieve the most effective improvements in police-community relations. As might have been expected, there were large differences in perspective across some of the panels. Panelists disagreed, for example, about whether there were too many police officers or not enough, about whether funding or policy was the larger problem, and even whether school resource officers were fundamentally helpful or harmful for young people.

Meanwhile, there was also an unusual degree of agreement about the idea that improved data transparency will lead to improved police-community relations. Panelists made a number of specific observations about the data they wanted and the value it would have for measuring problems or creating progress. Harvard professor Charles Ogletree highlighted the value of public opinion data, noting that the fact that whites and African-Americans offer highly divergent responses to the question, “Is my neighborhood protected?” provides a critical insight into understanding how communities see the police. (Pew Research Center data finds a similar gap on related questions.) He also identified the importance of stop and search data, which often demonstrates disproportionate stops of minorities. When a group of people is disproportionately stopped and searched, he argued, individuals in that group will be more likely to be found to be holding contraband like marijuana, further fueling the disproportionate criminalization of minority groups.

Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt questioned the value of existing complaint databases, arguing that citizen complaints can be a misleading indicator: people will often avoid contact with police if they fear them, decreasing the possibility of further interaction even just to complain. Because of this problem, she argued that body camera footage is more likely to be useful than complaints in identifying problematic conduct because the “film is neutral.” (Eberhardt’s recommendation is quite likely to see quick implementation: At least a dozen state legislatures are currently considering bills to require the police use of body cameras.)

Community and advocacy organizations also asked for more data. Carmen Perez of the Gathering for Justice read the New York City Justice League’s list of demands for reform in New York, which include seeking the release of data on police profiling, search and seizure practices, summonses, arrests and detention practices. Jim St. Germain of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow identified the need to surface data about quotas for arrests and summonses — the internal data that incentivizes bad arrests. The subject of quotas was also raised meaningfully outside of the context of the task force meeting in response to the widely publicized NYPD policing slowdown. Reporters have identified anonymous sources within the NYPD who feel that many of the activities that were slowed down were principally sources of revenue for the city rather than legitimate public safety concerns.

Larger advocacy organizations also called for better collection of and access to relevant data. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund named the creation of an accurate national public database to document police use of force as one of her organization’s top three priorities on this issue. Laura Murphy of the ACLU also prioritized data, collected “in a uniform manner, that allows officers engaged in misconduct to be identified. We need data on stops, frisks, searches, citations, arrests, excessive use of force and homicide.” (The ACLU has been involved in significant data creation and collection of its own. State chapters have been rolling out “Mobile Justice” apps that allow individuals to standardize their recording of their own interactions with police.)

Meanwhile, the panel of law enforcement officers also expressed strong support for improving national data collection and release. Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), pointed the task force toward the IACP’s newly released report on community-police relations. In this report, the IACP repeatedly calls for good data transparency for the purpose of improving police-community relations, observing:

Strong communication is critical to building relationships with the community. Transparency in all areas is key. Open, accessible reporting of statistics, arrest information, and any other law enforcement data is expected, even when the information provided does not paint the best picture … Open communication tells the community that there is nothing to hide.

The report also makes recommendations for specific data release. IACP calls for the release both of arrest and demographic data as well as data which responds to the specific needs of individual communities, by recommending “[capturing] metrics that matter to specific target groups. For example, when measuring police engagement with the community’s youth, develop metrics that will measure how engagement contributes to healthy development of youth.” Finally, the report recommends that departments analyze their “traffic stop, use of force, and other appropriate data” with the intention of using it “to evaluate social equity in department policies and procedures.”

Other law enforcement panelists also identified good data collection and release as critical for unifying perspectives across the police-community divide. Andrew Peralta, president of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, observed that regular transparency has the potential to reduce confrontation, by minimizing “racially divided information being put out during a critical incident.” The panel also supported improving data collection on assaults on police. Panel member Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, echoed a call for this data that he wrote about more extensively in a recent editorial for USA Today, arguing that police executives who failed to collect and submit these data should be held accountable.

The fact that all of these hearing participants supported the collection and release of more data about law enforcement provides a tremendous opportunity for the police data transparency movement. Reformers should take advantage of this momentum to call for improved collection and release at the police department, local government and state government level. Models for what some of these data sets could look like have been collected in projects like Crime and Punishment in Chicago, which lists national models it has identified for individual criminal justice datasets.

With improved data collection, it would be possible to support the national effort for improved community-police relations not just through transparency and trust, but also through developing better metrics for identifying good policing practice. Just as education in this country has been shifting to an outcomes-oriented approach since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era, and just as health care reformers are attempting to shift health care from a “fee-for-service” and illness-based model to a value-based and wellness-supporting model, we could use data to incentivize good community relations. Police departments and their communities could use the present moment to implement data-supported, evidence-based policy shifts to improve the community’s experience of public safety.

Between Attorney General Holder’s announcements and the momentum of the task force hearings, this is an exceptional moment to get involved with law enforcement data reform. (And not just with law enforcement data! See our post from yesterday for suggestions on improving transparency data around death penalty defense.) If you have specific ideas, please feel free to share them in the Improving Data for Police Accountability spreadsheet.