Data and Law Enforcement

Historically, police departments have often been chastised for dragging their feet when it comes to releasing data regarding police officers. As a result, newspapers and public institutions have resorted to keeping independent records when an instance of excessive force is suspected. The Guardian has responded with their visualization, The Counted, and the Washington Post has developed a similar collection of data, which the Post said was created because “data compiled by the federal government was unreliable and incomplete.”

But it is possible that times are changing.  The recent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, combined with protests sparked by the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, have led to a call for an increase in readily-available data from police departments.  The result has been a number of police departments embracing the concept of open data. The White House launched the Police Data Initiative (PDI) last year in an attempt to “increase transparency, build community trust, and support innovation,” and use technology to “identify problems, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate uses of force.”

One of the PDI’s projects is the Public Safety Data Portal. The site aims to serve as a clearinghouse for all of the datasets released by participating police departments. There are currently 58 departments listed on the website, and the site includes 149 datasets, which range from basic stops and citations, to arrests, to officer involved shootings. All of the data is downloadable, and the website even encourages independent analyses.

“We know that users will find even better ways to use, analyze, and remix the data than we have described here,” the PDI said on its website.

Besides the nationwide effort, individual law enforcement agencies have also demonstrated their commitment to using data science and open data to increase transparency. The Dallas Police Department (DPD), a member of the PDI, provides data regarding officer involved shootings, and this data is available for download on their own website. In a further embrace of using data, the DPD also provides data visualizations for those without the ability to analyze these datasets on their own.


“In an effort to provide greater transparency, the Dallas Police Department looks to share any information available with the community when an officer is involved in a shooting,” the DPD wrote on the site.

The increase in transparency is a significant step for police departments, but there are still limitations in using these data sets to identify problems and increase internal accountability. The problem lies in the source of the data: much of the information in these datasets is officer-reported, and therefore prone to the error that comes with any piece of self-reported data.

Another problem is encouraging broader participation. While it is encouraging to see more law enforcement agencies sharing their data, most law enforcement agencies are not releasing data that regards officer involved shootings. Still, the trend appears to show more agencies coming on board. The recently-announced Data-Driven Justice Initiative, another White House program that focuses on lessening the burden facing local jails, already has 67 city, county, and state governments pledged to sharing their data.

Ultimately, there is a long way to go for law enforcement agencies to fully commit to open data. Until then, there are still independently kept records, which remain vital until more police departments agree to greater data transparency.