Most of us are not statisticians. Yet we largely understand that findings based on data analysis can be as much a matter of opinion as a matter of fact. Data analysis is simply not the same as raw data. It involves selecting data sets, choosing methods to analyze the data, and interpreting results.
Law enforcement agencies gather a great deal of data regarding crimes. They regularly analyze that data looking for trends and developing ideas on better policing and public safety strategies, in order to reduce and prevent crime.
To date, most police agencies have typically only provided summaries of their findings to the community-at-large. Access to the underlying data the police use to develop surveillance and enforcement activities has not traditionally been made available to the public.
The question is, without specific knowledge and skills on how to analyze data, can a layperson understand a situation by looking at data in its raw form? As for data on crime, we are about to find out.
Open data is incident-specific information, based on individual incidents rather than aggregates or summaries, that is in a downloadable digital format made available at no cost online. It is machine readable, i.e. not an image or locked file. It is offered as non-proprietary and without restriction as to use. Open data allows anyone to access, download, and independently analyze data.
Before open data can be released the need to preserve privacy must be adequately addressed. Accordingly, release of open data must be done in a manner in which personally identifiable information is not disclosed and cannot be uncovered.
Another important consideration is the form of the data. It will be necessary for police agencies to present the data in relatable data fields so that the data can be easily understood.
As concerns regarding police actions have mounted amid news of police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, police agencies are seeking ways to build trust and better engage communities. The release of open data is an effort to do so through improved transparency and leveraging community insights.
A number of police agencies are interested in offering open data to their communities. To that end, the U.S. Department of Justice houses the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), which provides grants and other support to law enforcement agencies.
The office has been awarding grants to law enforcement agencies to hire community policing professionals and to develop and test innovative policing strategies. It is also providing training and technical assistance to community members and local government leaders.
The COPS Office has established the Police Data Initiative to promote use of open data. The hope is that sharing open data will encourage joint problem solving and innovation in reducing and eliminating crime. The office hopes that sharing open data will promote enhanced understanding and accountability between communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.
To date, over 130 local law enforcement agencies have participated in the initiative and have either provided or will soon provide open data in support of the project.
The civil rights defense attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser serve as counsel to a number of law enforcement agencies and local governments. Our services include preparing internal policies, developing best practices, and providing training. We can be reached by calling 484-318-7106 or completing an online form. Our West Chester, Pennsylvania office serves Chester County and the Philadelphia metropolitan area.