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Open Data: The First Step Towards Better Community-Police Relationships

This is a guest post from Socrata, a platinum sponsor of the 2015 Code for America Summit.

The conversation around public safety in America in 2015 has rattled the country. Through the rise of social media, 24/7 media coverage, and mobile phones with video cameras in nearly everyone’s pocket, the public has been given unprecedented awareness into policing activities in every city. In turn, police departments are recognizing the clear need to upgrade their practices around transparency and public engagement.  All around the country, police departments are getting serious about releasing data as a means to build trust, engage with their communities, and drive positive outcomes in public safety.

Last fall, President Obama launched the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to better understand specific policing challenges and help communities identify actions they can take to improve law enforcement and enhance community engagement. One of the key findings of that report was the recommendation for police forces around the country to move away from a “warrior” mentality and move deliberately towards a “guardian” mentality.

The warrior mentality, associated with the tough-on-crime stance rooted in the 1980s and 1990s era war on drugs, has failed to yield lasting results in cities. Instead, a backlash against authority has manifested in community uprisings in cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore, and Ferguson. This backlash is rooted in a degradation of trust between communities and police departments.

Out of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing was born a new program: the Police Data Initiative. Coordinated by the White House, 21 cities and counties came forward with a commitment to publish data on police operations such as use of force and citizen complaints.

By bringing city leaders together with top technologists, researchers, data scientists, and design experts, the Police Data Initiative is helping accelerate progress around data transparency and analysis—toward the goal of increased trust and impact. This open-minded approach to open data offers tremendous possibilities, no matter how strained the relationship between the police and the people in a community may be.


Several years ago the police department in Rutland, Vermont, faced with allegations of excessive force and had to cope with major mistrust from the City’s 17,000 residents. To regain standing, the police began to reach out to the community by releasing certain crime data in summary form. This was the genesis of Project VISION, a project that lead to a dramatic reduction in crime.

Now the Rutland Police Department is advancing its data publishing initiative by compiling and releasing more comprehensive and accessible data on crime incidence and arrest reports, incidences of use of force, and community meetings attended by police officers.

Their efforts are a leading example of what’s possible as we try to bring the police and the people closer together in our country.


Many police departments across the country are considering technology adoptions such as body cameras and predictive analytics, which have the potential to improve policing, but have also faced controversy and well-documented technical hurdles.

As promising as body cameras have been in promoting good actor behavior from cops and citizens, no major technology adoption removes the need for opening up broad swaths of law enforcement data.

For police departments, simply getting data into the open is a first step towards improved community relationships between police departments and citizens.

From a technical point of view, this is an easy assignment. Recommended datasets include 911 response timesuse of forcecitizen complaintsofficer involved shootingsassaults on officerscitationstraffic and pedestrian stops, and pursuits.

This data should be published in a simple-to-understand format to equip everyday citizens with the tools to understand what police are doing, including what they are doing well and where they can improve. If this data is published openly and clearly, then trust between communities and their law enforcement agencies should grow.

In addition, it’s not just crime-prevention data that’s needed. Police departments should release datasets related to community engagement, as well. These may be listings of past and future community meetings attended by officers, regular neighborhood meetings, school presentations, survey results, diversity training statistics, etc.

The hope is that by consistently sharing data about their work through open data initiatives, police organizations will foster an environment of transparency and trust. In this more open space, communities and their law enforcement agencies can then sit at the same table with mutual respect and constructive voices. These more constructive relationships will then yield several very important outcomes: improved citizen satisfaction with police departments; more citizens feeling safe in neighborhoods; awareness of police activity; and ultimately, reduction of crime.

For more information on this topic, be sure to join me at the Code for America Summit September 30 – October 2 for the panel on Open Policing: How transparency can lead to trust, community engagement, and positive outcomes.