Opening officer safety data to the public to make safer communities

In 2015, as conversations about policing grabbed the nation’s attention, the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety (DPS) was thinking about how there is more to building safe communities than just reducing crime. Quality of education, healthcare, and housing affect communities’ safety. They were collecting data on officers’ interactions with the community, but not actively using it. Could measuring police officer interactions with residents help with their goal of collectively creating a safer community?

With the help of Code for America fellows, Indianapolis built Comport to make sense of their data on use of force, officer-involved shootings, and complaints against police. Now, when they see trends across the department, they are better able to address them before they escalate. They are also able to share that data with the public on an ongoing basis, to spark a dialogue on police-community relations that is grounded in current data.

Reduce use of force, with the community in the lead

As conversations about policing grabbed the nation’s attention, public safety agencies across the country started exploring solutions to address centuries of distrust. Even before the Code for America fellows touched down in Indianapolis,  the city was keen on using data and technology as tools for transparency and police accountability.

The goal: Using data to inform efforts to reduce use of force incidents and complaint against officers, and including the community in that effort.

Police Open Data Census

The fellows and Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs, Deputy Director of Public Safety Valerie Washington, Chief of Police Rick Hite, and Public Safety administrator Chrissy Wurster, took a trip to the White House, where they discussed methods for using data to increase transparency and accountability. When the White House Police Data Initiative started, more than 10 law enforcement agencies, including Indianapolis, committed to opening data sets such as uses of force and complaints against officers. Membership has more than doubled since the meeting.

To collect the data from across the participating agencies, the fellows built the Police Open Data Census.

This year, Code for America is continuing the work Indianapolis and the fellows started by piloting Comport with at least three more agencies.

<p>Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs and Deputy Director of Public Safety Valerie Washington commit to opening IMPD datasets at the White House gathering on transparency and accountability.</p>

Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs and Deputy Director of Public Safety Valerie Washington commit to opening IMPD datasets at the White House gathering on transparency and accountability.

Making key data sets public was key to 1) building trust with the public and 2) giving police the tools they need to preempt trends in the department. But, data without context does little good, particularly for people who aren’t police officers. Adding context to sensitive police data requires a lot of outreach to the community.

“I know what I see on the news, and if someone I know has a run-in with the police, but that’s probably not everything that’s going on,” said one Indianapolis resident at a neighborhood association meeting.

Data quality often varies as collection processes change over time, and some cleaning is often required to make it easy and useful to work with. Also, police data has security needs that other open data topics don’t, such as protecting victims and ongoing investigations.

After going to various community meetings, two common questions emerged:

  • Are the number of uses of force and complaints against officers going up or down?
  • Are certain officers causing more problems? Are the officers and members of the public involved representative of the city’s population, or do racial disparities show up in the data?
<p>Indianapolis residents discuss public safety in their neighborhood at Fellows' office hours at the nearby library.</p>

Indianapolis residents discuss public safety in their neighborhood at Fellows' office hours at the nearby library.

After learning about residents’ needs, and how data could address them, the team focused on the technical work of opening three datasets: uses of force, officer-involved shootings, and complaints against officers. IMPD and the Citizens’ Police Complaints Office were already tracking all of these data in an Internal Affairs database, but the system didn’t provide an easy way to export the data.

“Using accurate and meaningful data helps IMPD make better management, policy, and training decisions,” said IMPD Major David Robinson.

As the website came together, the visualizations went through iterations to make the information in the charts and labels more clear. City employees worked with the Fellows to create text to provide context for charts, such as links to IMPD policies, information on relevant training that officers receive, and explanations of how to understand the data.

Making Data Driven Decisions

With Comport, it’s easy to see trends in the department so they are better able to address them before they escalate.

For example, two to three serious rudeness complaints against an officer in one week, triggers the Citizens' Police Complaint Office (CPCO), an office independent of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, to contact the officer’s commander. The CPCO and the commander speak with the officer to see if there is a personal issue driving the behavior. Together, they identify trainings, or other interventions that address the issue.

“Now, IMPD North District has invited the CPCO Director to present at roll call this month on most common complaints and how to reduce them,” said Lori White, Executive Director of the CPCO.

The Code for America Brigade, Open Indy, is exploring and visualizing the data in Comport to find other ways the information could help the conversation. On the advocacy side, it's helpful for all sides to use the same set of data. That way, they can have a more productive dialogue around policies that could help solve for trends in the data.

What’s Next for Comport

Code for America is excited to build on Indianapolis’ leadership in this new field of Police open data with a free exclusive pilot of Comport with three  additional agencies in 2016. Partnering with new agencies will give governments the benefit of working together, pulling all their insights into what changes they could collectively make based on trends.