July 11, 2018

United States: Open Data Spotlights Police Bias

New York, San Francisco and Detroit Release Datasets of Police Shootings, Arrests, and Use of Force

In the United States, widespread distrust of police — particularly among communities of color — has been exacerbated by reports of racial discrimination and police violence. The lack of transparency regarding policing methods has meant that little data has been made available for public oversight. Police departments were not incentivized to release such data, and no federal agency was responsible for collecting it.  

To make police departments across the country more accountable to the communities they are sworn to serve, President Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2014, which included the Open Police Data Initiative. By December 2017,  137 law enforcement agencies, including those in major cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and Detroit, released more than two hundred datasets that included information on stops, citations, arrests, use of force, workforce demographics, police shootings, and homicides.

The availability of better data has helped to change police tactics in several jurisdictions. Greater awareness of dispatch data, for example, has allowed drug overdoses to be mapped, providing an early warning system for overdose spikes and opportunities for targeted interventions and coordinated efforts. The media has also used police data to report important stories. For example, an analysis by The New York Times showed that officers in North Carolina were more likely to stop black drivers for no attributable reason, with many of these incidents resulting in the use of force. Negative coverage led police chiefs to order their officers to stop the practice of profiling and focus on actual traffic violations, decreasing racial disparity in traffic stops.