Prompted by the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protesters are demanding a wide range of changes to policing, including abolition, shifting funds to other community services, and tactical reforms. A common thread across these demands is that American policing must be held accountable to the communities it serves. Accountability, however, requires transparency — and transparency is a concrete step that local leaders can take right now.
After Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the Obama administration launched the Police Data Initiative as part of a detailed national response to racialized police violence. At the time, few if any police departments in the country published data about their own actions in sufficient detail for community members to check for evidence of bias.
These days, information about police officers’ actions in addition to the arrests they make is more commonly released. But most of these data sets still lack key details and crucial context, such as corresponding body-camera footage, or published policies on what is allowed (and not) when officers use force. In most cases, releasing data isn’t mandated by law; it’s a matter of what leaders want to do. The Boston Police Department, for example, stopped publishing its annual data on stop-and-frisk incidents after 2016. It took months of public calls for transparency, public records requests, and finally a subpoena to restore the flow of data just last month. BPD’s excuse for the three-year gap in publishing data? Nobody had asked for it.
Americans shouldn’t have to beg for data from agencies that have such extraordinary powers. As Art Acevedo, then the police chief in Austin, Texas, and now the chief in Houston made clear five years ago: “This isn’t our data, it’s the people’s data.”
Governments should lean into the idea of being held accountable by their community members in ways that would represent a radical departure from the status quo. It is necessary for both legitimacy and trust. Leaders can start immediately by ordering the release of these five data sets:
- Use of force, including shootings by officers. Is force more likely to be applied in communities of color, adjusting for other factors? What are the results from internal investigations into whether the force was justified? The Seattle Police Department’s use-of-force data is updated automatically in near real-time, and Orlando’s officer-involved-shooting data includes detailed review letters from the State Attorney for each incident.
- Complaints against officers. What complaints are people filing about police officers? How are these complaints against officers resolved? The Citizen Complaint Authority in Cincinnati helps the public understand this data in graphs, charts, and maps, making it easier to devise better policies.
- Police force demographics. Does the police force look like the community it serves? Are they failing to retain women and people of color? Wallkill, N.Y., publishes an annual spreadsheet that details rank, years on the force, gender, and education levels of the 120 people in their department.
- “Stop-and-frisk.” Which populations are police most often stopping in the field, and for what reasons? The Boston Police Department’s newly liberated data includes the names of the officers making the stops and their supervisors. NYPD releases annual data with demographic details and the reasons for the stops.
- Traffic stops. Are people of color disproportionately likely to be pulled over? Are police actions biased, whether they let someone off with a warning or ask to search the vehicle? The San Diego Police Department, in accordance with the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, releases demographic details on the people stopped, as well as reasons for the stops and any actions taken by the officers.
Numbers alone won’t tell the whole story, though. Radical transparency will require police and other government agencies to publish complementary records and documents, such as the department’s policy handbook (including the rules on the use of force), police union contracts, prosecutorial and review board decisions, and internal disciplinary records. Departments should promptly make body-worn camera footage available when an incident is being reviewed to clarify, for example, whether a person “tripped” or was actually pushed by officers.
We need to also ensure that all data are released responsibly, protecting privacy so that victims of crimes and police misconduct feel comfortable reporting. Greater transparency will also, in some communities, require revisiting outdated laws and obstructionist police union contracts that are holding back data to which the public is entitled. Leadership is essential to breaking these logjams.
The lack of transparency has not only left our law enforcement apparatus unchecked and unaccountable to the community, but it also has made it harder to understand what actually works to reduce police violence. After the death of George Floyd, we learned Derek Chauvin had at least 18 citizen complaints filed against him. Accountability starts with transparency. We must face the difficult truths hiding in the unopened vault of police data.
Clarence Wardell is director of City Solutions for the What Works Cities Initiative at Results for America, a research organization that advises governments. Denice Ross is a fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship and Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. They co-founded the White House Police Data Initiative in 2015.