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Transparency and Accountability at the Frontlines of Justice: Police Data Transparency

Transparencia y rendición de cuentas en la vanguardia de la justicia: Transparencia de los datos sobre la policía

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OVERVIEW

A lack of transparent or comparable police data inhibits the public and policymakers’ ability to fully understand and address problematic police practices and their consequences. OGP members are increasingly taking the initiative to open police data with the ultimate aim of evidence-based police reform.

While police departments must be cautious to protect individuals’ right to privacy, transparent data on police-citizen interaction is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of interactions between citizens and the police. Open data in areas like public complaints, officer-involved deaths, and use of force provides the foundation for informed research, policy reforms, and oversight. Specifically, open data enables evaluation of law enforcement’s fairness in their interactions with the public. Separately, the publication of police department budgets and expenditures ensures that public funding of law enforcement meets the needs of all citizens. Therefore, requiring police departments to provide accessible data is an essential first step toward strengthening public accountability and earning public trust.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GOVERNMENTS

  • Codify police data collection and publication in law: Amend policing and right to information legislation to require greater transparency.
  • Involve citizens early: Convene law enforcement and public officials, civil society organizations, and members of the public to identify priority information for collection, disclosure, and privacy protection.
  • Systematically collect and retain standardized policing data: Establish routine procedures that ensure various agencies use common terminology, categorization, and collection practices for data.
  • Publish policing budget data: Regularly provide up-to-date data on government budgets for law enforcement as well as data on police expenditures. Aim to disclose information disaggregated at the police precinct level.
  • Release data through an accessible online database: Provide current data in a free and downloadable format to ensure transparency. Provide disaggregated demographic data to measure the fairness of police interactions with the public and to facilitate analysis of particular patterns.
  • Publish data restriction policies: Publish, in clear and accessible language,  information on standards and practices that inform what police information is classified or restricted. Include the public in shaping policies that determine what information is classified or restricted.
  • Organize the data: Ensure that data can be downloaded, searched, and machine-read to facilitate researchers and community members’ data analysis.
  • Develop standards for comparison: Comparable data enables better research and policy responses. While some governments may begin with a data standard, others will have more success in working toward cross-jurisdictional consensus on common data collected and published.
  • Translate data into digestible formats: Provide graphics and written narratives that help the general public observe important trends and findings within the data.
  • Facilitate data-driven publications and policy changes: Actively collaborate with civil society organizations, researchers, and other stakeholders to produce reports and recommendations based on findings from collaborative data analysis.

RELEVANT ACTIONS

Open Police Data Initiative in the United States

The United States government undertook the Open Police Data Initiative as part of its 2015 National Action Plan to address high levels of distrust and tension between police and the public. The Initiative encourages local police jurisdictions to proactively extract and publish policing data. The project is managed collaboratively by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the nonprofit organization, The National Police Foundation. The Initiative increased access to information by creating a centralized database that comprises over 130 jurisdictions and 405 datasets as of June 2020, including cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit. The website also provides tools to extract, analyze, and publish data. This repository has led to published datasets in numerous areas, including on police use of force and officer-involved shootings. However, agency participation is voluntary and the adoption rate remains low. Additionally, there is a need to improve data standardization and ensure regular updates. Recent unrest across the US has reignited interest in open police data as reformers call for greater police transparency. This Initiative demonstrates a viable process to further open police data with the ultimate aim to reduce bias and unnecessary use of force in policing tactics and increasing public trust.

Legislating Policing Transparency in India

In 2009, India’s Parliament amended the Criminal Procedure Code to include a requirement that all police departments disclose information about arrests made. The law mandates that the information be published daily at the district level and include the names of arrested individuals and the names and designations of the police officers who arrested them. While this information raises concerns about privacy protections, it can be an important step for minimizing pretrial detention that does not comply with due process rights, especially in contexts where institutional protections against abuse of power and for access to justice may be weaker. Additionally, police headquarters must regularly collate this information at the state level, as well as information about the offenses for which arrested individuals were charged. All of this information is publicly available in the form of databases on the official websites of each state’s police department. For example, see Kerala State Police’s portal. Separately, India’s National Crime Records Bureau has published the annual Crime in India Report since 1953, which contains crime data from across the country, including cases registered and persons arrested.

INTERNATIONAL NORMS AND GUIDANCE

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight, and Integrity 

The handbook offers OGP countries several tangible actions to build a culture of transparency and accountability as well as reliable statistics on police performance, integrity, and public confidence. It encourages police reforms to be developed through public-police participation and not be simply prescriptive. Furthermore, the handbook gives guidance for external police oversight mechanisms:

  • The mechanism should be required to issue regular reports to the Government and the public on its activities.
  • It should maintain a website with easily accessible information.
  • It should respond in a timely fashion to citizen complaints.
  • It should maintain detailed data on police abuses. Civilian oversight mechanisms are uniquely placed to conduct statistical or general reviews of patterns in police killings, including their causes, and should do so.
  • Its budget and expenses should be publicly reported. (70)

The U.S. Final Report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

Released in 2015, this report recommends that agencies should collect and make aggregate data publicly available. Specific action items for police forces include:

  • Collect, maintain, and report data to the federal government on all officer-involved shootings;
  • Develop policies on what types of information will be released, when, and in what situation, to maintain transparency;
  • Make public the demographic data regarding the composition of their force;
  • Collect, maintain, and analyze demographic data on all detentions (stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests); and
  • Disaggregate data by school and non-school contacts.

OGP COMMITMENTS IN THIS AREA

  1. Austin, United States (2019–2021): Austin, Texas seeks to translate their Annual Crime Data file into accessible formats for the general public, such as written narratives and interactive maps.
  2. Colombia (2017–2019): Colombia’s National Police aims to improve access to information and increase police services for people with disabilities as well as strengthen citizen oversight and citizen-police communication.
  3. Georgia (2016–2018): The Supreme Court of Georgia led an initiative to publish national phone-tap data according to the nature of the crime and geographic area.
  4. Liberia (2015–2017): Liberia committed to providing live police data on Liberia’s Open Data Portal that would include the location of police depots, actions against unprofessional police conduct, and crime maps.
  5. United Kingdom (2013–2015): The United Kingdom committed to bring police records under legislative control through the Public Records Act of 1958 to ensure long-term preservation and access.
  6. United States (2015–2017): The Police Data Initiative is a collaborative effort to release and analyze police data from across the United States in a common online database.

RESOURCES AND PARTNERS

Resources

Organizations

Our thanks to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Rebecca Neusteter at the University of Chicago for reviewing this module.

Featured Photo Credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

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