Opening criminal justice data: What we learned from Louisiana

Police car
Police car in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo credit: Stanley Wood

While Louisiana fails at reporting criminal justice data on the state level, it succeeds at doing so on the municipal level, making it an extraordinary case study of the complexities of state criminal justice data.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, there were multiple officer-involved shootings and cases of police misconduct, including the Danziger Bridge shootings, where police officers shot and killed two people and wounded four others. These events, alongside New Orleans’ historically high levels of violent crime and incarceration, raised awareness for criminal justice reform in New Orleans. Growing public support for reform and the need for an organized approach to address injustices in the criminal justice system gave rise to multiple advocacy groups and nonprofits headquartered in the city, such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, Voice of the Ex-Offender, Orleans Public Defenders and Innocence Project New Orleans.

Notably, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research nonprofit that works with government throughout the country to improve criminal justice systems, established a New Orleans office in 2008 to implement recommendations outlined in its 2007 report on reforming the city’s criminal justice system post-Katrina. The report provided “locally-feasible” and short-term recommendations for criminal justice reform in New Orleans, such as instituting a community court, reducing local jail population and analyzing municipal offense data to provide a stronger evidence-based foundation for future initiatives:

Vera’s investigation indicates that New Orleans can improve public safety by pursuing the following new policies or programs: early triage of cases and routine communication between police and prosecutors; a wider range of pretrial release options, community-service sentencing, and greater use of alternatives to prison; and more appropriate and cost-effective sanctions for municipal offenses.

Municipal data and New Orleans’ consent decree

Post-Katrina, community groups brought concerns to the city council regarding actions of the NOPD, thus extending concern for criminal justice reform to the municipal government. These concerns were the foundation for the establishment of the Office of the Independent Police Monitor in 2008 as New Orleans’ police oversight agency, something that didn’t exist before.

In 2012, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) after the agency had initiated an investigation of the police department in 2011. This consent decree acted as the basis for criminal justice reform in New Orleans and pressed the city to invest in significant criminal justice data improvements. It also established a Consent Decree Monitor to hold the NOPD accountable to the requirements of the decree.

Many of these requirements were intended to improve the quality and availability of police data such as calling for the collection, analysis and reporting of use of force, stop and search, police misconduct and training records data. Further, the DOJ required that the NOPD keep and make publicly available all policies, manuals, reports and audits, thus allowing for accountability throughout the police department.

Since 2011, the NOPD has made its detailed calls for service data, also known as 911 call data, available on New Orleans’ open data portal. This data is downloadable in many open formats and includes information on location, time, event type and case status. In addition to the calls for service data, the NOPD publishes quarterly Uniform Crime Report (UCR) statistics and daily major offense logs in PDF format. This amount of publicly available information is uncommon for a municipality and places New Orleans ahead of the curve.

Other parishes in the area have also excelled in producing criminal justice data. For instance, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has a particularly excellent tool that makes crime data available online. This tool allows for the user to query incidents by date, location and type and then export the query in CSV or PDF format, similar to NOPD’s calls for service data.

Data like the kind provided in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish is integral in building police-community relations in general, especially so in Louisiana in light of the police misconduct that was revealed by investigations post-Katrina. This type of data allows the public to regularly hold the police accountable for their daily actions and fosters trust between the municipal government and the public.

State-level data and Louisiana’s statistical analysis center

While municipalities in Louisiana are surrounded by public support for criminal justice reform and have been generally successful in making data available, state agencies in Louisiana have failed to produce up-to-date criminal justice data.

At the cornerstone of state-level criminal justice data is the Statistical Analysis Center (SAC). Most states have an SAC tasked with the collection, analysis and dissemination of criminal justice data for the state.

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice (LCLE), which is the state’s statistical analysis center, appears to produce and disseminate less data than most SACs; it makes few reports available on its site. The LCLE does produce an annual report typical to many SACs titled “Crime in Louisiana.” But, this report is published with a two-year lag, meaning the report published in 2014 used data from 2012!

This lag is due to the lack of data quality resources within the LCLE. Instead of verifying its own data, the LCLE relies on the FBI’s UCR data. As part of the UCR, local law enforcement agencies report annual crime statistics to the FBI. That agency in turn produces an annual UCR report on crime across the United States. The LCLE uses the data published in the annual UCR report to create its own annual “Crime in Louisiana” report, relying on FBI-verified data. So far in compiling Sunlight’s criminal justice data inventory, we have yet to see another state rely completely on the FBI for data quality assurance and produce an annual report with such a long delay.

While Louisiana’s municipalities have been successful in improving criminal justice data practices, the same does not appear to be true for the state as a whole. On the state level, Louisiana’s criminal justice data awaits the reform encouraged by nonprofits and advocacy groups on the local level. Without the regular access to recent and useful data, the state of the Louisiana criminal justice system remains largely unknown.

You can visit Sunlight’s criminal justice data inventory to learn more about what other kinds of criminal justice data are available in Louisiana — or any of the 26 states completed thus far.