Op-ed: It’s time for the data revolution to improve U.S. policing police data
FILE - Minneapolis police stand outside the department's 3rd Precinct on May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. President Joe Biden plans to sign an executive order on policing on Wednesday, the second anniversary of George Floyd's death. That's according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the matter. The executive order includes changes to policies on use of force and restrictions on the flow of surplus military hardware to local police. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP, File)
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By Amy Bach & Darrell Malone

Recently, the federal government took positive action to remedy the persistent danger posed by overly aggressive police officers. President Biden signed the Executive Order to Advance Effective, Accountable Policing and Strengthen Public Safety, which included creating a new national database of police misconduct. It was one of a number of actions undertaken by federal and state governments to assuage concerns about police misconduct in recent years.

However, despite these efforts at transparency, policing in America continues to exhibit a resistance to scrutiny.

The fact is: for all the country’s progress on using data to inform decision making, local police departments across the country continue to lag in their data gathering and sharing efforts. According to a new report by the Marshall Project, nearly 40% of police agencies didn’t submit data to the FBI’s data collection system in 2021, including police departments in NYC and Los Angeles. 

This failure to collect and report out data leaves community groups and advocates reliant on data obtained from slow Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or data portals that are few and far between. And it leaves policy makers without the information they need to make informed decisions. In equally bad news, most of the existing data on policing continues to be non-standardized, unavailable, or otherwise unusable. The result is a lack of transparency and accountability at the community level, which is where most people encounter law enforcement. 

The importance of standardized measures

We know when data are used to inform decision making, policing improves. For instance, the University of Chicago Health Lab’s Transform 911 initiative found that a public health response, upgraded technology, and standardized coding provide a far more effective 911 response for many communities. 

It is critical that we support efforts to make more police data available and mobilized. And some local efforts are gaining traction. 

In January, the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) and Measures for Justice (MFJ) gathered input from community leaders and representatives nationwide to help establish what, exactly, needs to be assessed and measured to get a solid understanding of what is happening in police departments and why. Based on findings from the CODE Roundtable, MFJ is leading work to develop a national set of standardized measures that can be populated with data from local police departments for display on a platform that is easily accessed and understood by everyone. 

These measures will then be piloted with departments in West Sacramento, CA and Rochester, NY.

Reshaping police requires data

In a related effort, the National Police Data Coalition (NPDC) is creating a public record of police officers that will be trackable across police departments and engaging the legal and tech communities to build the tools of accountability and provide them to the public at large. 

And organizations like CPE are approaching communities to examine organizational, strategic, interpersonal, and external risk factors to make change at the local level.

Data on police performance are an essential part of any effort to reshape policing. But we simply can’t rely on the institutions of the government to provide that data on their own. In the past decade, the United States’s tech community has demonstrated its capacity to create disruptive technologies that redefine the way we engage with the world. That innovative spirit in the service of government accountability can transform policing as well.

The public needs to be engaged in the process of providing this data at every level: from the citizens and journalists on the street to their representatives in office. Law enforcement agencies must not be black boxes, but instead must be accountable to the people they serve and open to data driven, evidence based reform.

This work is already gaining traction at the federal level and on an ad hoc basis in various communities. Now it’s time to embrace a systematic, national approach to data driven reform and best practices for policing around the country. 

Amy Bach is the Founder and CEO of Measures for Justice. 

Darrell Malone is the Founder of the National Police Data Coalition and the Tubman Project.

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