Want the Public to Trust Police? Try Transparency

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Dan Stageman

Dan Stageman

Nearly 18 months after a grand jury declined to indict a Ferguson, MO police officer in the fatal August, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the visceral anger and destructive unrest that accompanied the protests over that decision have cooled. But the organizing force behind the protests—the Black Lives Matter movement—has coalesced into a powerful social, cultural and political force.

One example of its impact: the conversation fueled by Black Lives Matter about police accountability has moved into the academic sphere. This week, John Jay College will host a symposium whose title, Building Public Trust: Generating Evidence to Enhance Police Accountability and Legitimacy, makes abundantly clear the challenges involved in changing the insular police culture that has made such shootings a too-frequent occurrence in many of our communities.

The February 22 symposium is the second such event, sponsored by the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). The first, held in February 2015, was entitled Moving Beyond Discipline: The Role of Civilians in Police Accountability.

The impact of these conferences, which bring together NACOLE’s member-practitioners—representing oversight organizations in some 30 states and six countries—with criminal justice academics, policy-makers, and professionals, should not be under-estimated.  It’s clear that the criminal justice scholarly community and law enforcement policy-makers have begun to listen to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and allied advocacy organizations—and to respond in ways that push the conversation forward.

Many of these responses have the potential to bring fundamental changes to the practice of law enforcement, the philosophy of policing, and—in the long term—to the culture that makes many American law enforcement agencies so resistant to change.

The starting point for many of the constructive policy responses to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is the Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to which both NACOLE staff and John Jay College faculty made a number of important contributions. This week’s academic symposium takes as a particular focus the Report’s Action Item 1.3.1:

To embrace a culture of transparency, law enforcement agencies should make all department policies available for public review and regularly post on the department’s website information about stops, summonses, arrests, reported crime, and other law enforcement data aggregated by demographics. (13)

One year after the Report’s release, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this action item, or the impact that it has already had on departmental policies in major city law enforcement agencies across the country.

Analyses like those produced by John Jay’s Misdemeanor Justice Project—on many years of misdemeanor arrests, summonses, and enforcement rates in New York City—would not have been possible without data shared by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Commissioner William Bratton’s continued support for the project —even as he occasionally takes issue with its findings—perhaps speaks as much to a shift in open-data policy nationwide as it does to philosophical differences between Bratton and his predecessor, Raymond W. Kelly.

Even as major law enforcement agencies have themselves engendered a shift toward making publicly available important data on law enforcement activity, a more important driver of openness is the need to heal the sometimes-toxic relations between police and the communities they serve, as noted in the Task Force Report’s Recommendation 2.8:

Some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement is important in order to strengthen trust with the community. Every community should define the appropriate form and structure of civilian oversight to meet the needs of that community. (26)

Civilian oversight in NYC took a giant step forward with Local Law 70 and the formation of the NYPD Office of the Inspector General in 2013. Appointed to the post in March,  2014, Philip K. Eure (who serves as committee co-chair for the NACOLE Symposium) has approached data-sharing and evidence-based assessment as one of the core functions of his office, pushing the NYPD on its use of litigation data in one of its first official reports.

This push for open data, in response to the concerns raised by recent protest movements and advocacy efforts, is an effort well-suited to the agencies tasked with formal civilian oversight of law enforcement; the question of what to do with this data once it is shared with the public is one that research scholars need to answer.

In the hands of social scientists, open data can be transformed into a staggering number of genuinely useful tools: algorithms for predicting potential police misconduct, a relational database and typology for analyzing departmental trends in use of force, or a process-oriented framework for designing the roll-out of a major urban police department’s body-worn camera policy.

All of these tools will be featured, in presentations from the researchers who designed them, at Friday’s symposium. The conversations that follow—led by  oversight professionals, and including an audience of academics, policymakers, funders, law enforcement practitioners, and members of the public—should provide an open forum that pushes these researchers to refine their work and better respond to the needs of the communities whose advocacy helped make the discussions possible.

Ultimately, however, these partnerships and the tools to which they give rise are only one link in a chain that should end with the general public.

True transparency is about communicating the workings of formerly opaque institutions to the public which those institutions are ostensibly intended to serve. Transparency in law enforcement should strive to correct the informational imbalance between the police and highly policed communities. It is an imbalance that allows an arresting officer to pull up the intimate details of a suspect’s life on a computer screen with the touch of a button, but prevents community members from knowing the realities of—and the rationales for—the manner in which they are policed.

Scholars and oversight agencies are often ill-suited to make the final connections that communicate their vital work to the publics—particularly highly policed communities—they mean to benefit. The vital role for journalists in disseminating the evidence base that these researchers are working to build cannot be overstated.

Resources like The Crime Report’s media toolkits and Guggenheim Fellowships, that support evidence-based criminal justice journalism, make it possible for journalists to better communicate the meaning of publicly available data to a public that might not have the expertise to digest this data directly.

Friday’s sessions are open to the public. Those interested in attending can review the agenda or register for the Symposium online.

Daniel Stageman is Director of Research Operations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a Doctoral Candidate in Criminal Justice at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is academic co-chair of the upcoming NACOLE Symposium. Dan welcomes readers’ comments.

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