One priority we have at the Sunlight Foundation is to help people get the information they want from their governments. Our effort to free information that governments sometimes hold too tightly plays out in many realms, from the federal to the international to the local.
We are especially familiar with the special struggles inherent in making sure that government information that the public wants becomes regularly available and proactively posted online — and, while we’re at it, with the formats and legal permissions that make this information most useful and usable.
Our work in open data involves asking governments to make posting their new public data part of their regular practice. This is a culture change for many units of government, but perhaps nowhere does this represent more of a culture change than for our nation’s local police departments. Having been given broad and longstanding exemptions from many state and federal public records laws, law enforcement in general has yet to build a clear understanding of how to make its workings transparent to the public.
Meanwhile, there may be no other unit of government from which the public more strongly desires information. The high-profile police shootings of civilians over the past year have lent new urgency to America’s need to bring light to the policies and practices of our police departments.
For that reason, Sunlight is very proud to have the opportunity to provide support to the White House’s new Police Data Initiative. Through this initiative, 21 local police departments have voluntarily committed to make key datasets public — important, frequently requested information like records of pedestrian and traffic stops, use-of-force data and officer-involved shootings. Sunlight will provide support to the initiative by serving as a resource to police departments interested in creating sustainable open data policies and practices.
The need to entrench strong and effective data-access policies in police departments is not merely a response to a potentially-shifting level of public and media attention. The need to provide more regular access to police data was also emphasized in yesterday’s release of the final report of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Some of the recommendations that we were pleased to see included:
- 1.3.1 Action Item: To embrace a culture of transparency, law enforcement agencies should make all department policies available for public review and regularly post on the department’s website information about stops, summonses, arrests, reported crime, and other law enforcement data aggregated by demographics.
- 2.2 Recommendation: Law enforcement agencies should have comprehensive policies on the use of force that include training, investigations, prosecutions, data collection, and information sharing. These policies must be clear, concise, and openly available for public inspection.
- 2.2.4 Action Item: Policies on use of force should also require agencies to collect, maintain, and report data to the Federal Government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.
- 2.2.5 Action Item: Policies on use of force should clearly state what types of information will be released, when, and in what situation, to maintain transparency.
- 2.6 Recommendation: Law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to collect, maintain, and analyze demographic data on all detentions (stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests). This data should be disaggregated by school and non-school contacts.
These recommendations and action items form a very useful baseline for departments beginning to work on data transparency for improved community relations. Here at Sunlight, we could not be more pleased to see this new initiative on supporting increased police transparency, and we are honored to be able to support it as it happens.