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Yes, Open Data, But Remember the Humans Behind the Numbers.

Recently, Code for America’s Safety and Justice focus area hosted a conversation with law enforcement from several cities: Indianapolis IN, Vallejo CA, Richmond CA, and Oakland CA. While these cities are quite different, they’re all interested in ways technology can improve relations between police and the communities they serve.


Interactions between the police and community are often summarized into statistics, especially within police departments – but each number represents an encounter between people, often in a crisis situation when emotions are high.

Using Data to Make Change In Indianapolis

Indianapolis looked at data and found a trend: areas without many grocery stores (for example, eight grocery stores for 42,000 residents) have a lot of petty theft of food from markets.

“We get that it’s beyond a data point,” says former DPS Deputy Director Valerie Washington. “These data points equate to someone’s quality of life in their neighborhood.”

Instead of focusing on the thefts, the city partnered with Gleaners Food Bank to bring mobile food banks to those neighborhoods, where first responders hand out food each week.

In the pilot program’s first 2.5 weeks, the mobile food banks served more than 2,600 households – that’s 12,000 people who might otherwise have gone hungry.

“Data is enhancing our city’s ability to employ a true community-based approach to law enforcement,” says Jen Pittman, Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Greg Ballard. “It’s never a substitute for personal interaction, but using data in strategic ways can tell our police officers where personal interaction is needed most in our neighborhoods.”

Beyond Data

While departments sometimes need to speak in numbers to understand the broad range of work they do, the foundation of trust comes from connecting with the citizens they protect and serve on a personal level as humans, not just authority figures.

“The positive interactions I’ve had with police have been candid conversations where we can crack a joke,” says Irorobeje Crystal Owhoso, an Indianapolis resident and Department of Public Safety Academy Graduate. “While growing up in the Greater Boston area, the police had an active role in the community. When kids threw big parties, there were a lot of teaching moments rather than arrests. I take that with me – my ideal situation is police that focus on community growth and teaching moments, especially with youth.”

Making Connections in Vallejo

To try to build positive relationships, the Vallejo Police Department partnered with New Dawn Vallejo and other city and county departments and community groups to host a Late Night Basketball Program on Friday and Saturday nights, giving young people a chance to get to know police in a fun and safe situation.

So far, each event has drawn 100-200 youth, and the positive interactions there have spread out into the community. An officer and a teen who met at one event ran into each other on the street a few days later. While the teen may not have previously been inclined to socialize with police officers, the officer remembered his name, and the two had a friendly chat thanks to the trust built at the event.

“This is a clear example of the effectiveness of building positive relationships throughout the community, as they can certainly promote positive interactions in the future,” said Sergeant Brenton Garrick of the VPD Community Engagement Office.

Both the Indianapolis and Vallejo Code for America Fellowship teams are continuing to work on projects to improve relations between the police and the community. You can keep up with Indianapolis’ projects, or explore and contribute to our Police Open Data Census.


Sketch notes of the conversation between law enforcement and Code for America by Alan Joseph Williams

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