Transparency and Law Enforcement: Open Data Holds the Key

By Jim Brooks, Crime Analyst Supervisor, Little Rock Police Department

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(Wearing bright blue) the author, Jim Brooks, gathers with (front row, center) Mayor Mark Stodola and other city staff leading What Works Cities work in Little Rock, Arkansas

As a former newspaper reporter on the “police beat,” I remember many times during my journalism career when great battles were waged over access to information from the Little Rock Police Department. It seemed at times — most frequently under deadline pressure — the frustration in obtaining even the most basic incident information stoked an atmosphere of mistrust that needlessly complicated the working relationship between reporter and police agency.

Now, having left reporting behind to become Crime Analyst Supervisor for the very same department that so often left me desperately working the phones with police sources while an editor hovered over me like a carrion bird, I’ve seen the importance of making public data easily accessible from another perspective — that of a civil servant.

The City of Little Rock’s open data initiative is an important step in creating a sphere of cooperation, where information flows freely among city departments without having to be pried out via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and where information is shared directly with the public, not just with a favorite reporter here or there. Through its partnership with What Works Cities, Little Rock has developed an open data policy and launched an open data portal — both of which are helping the City meet its goals to be more transparent, provide data that’s of use to residents, and improve government services to improve the quality of life for our local community.

At the Little Rock Police Department (LRPD), we are swimming in data. All we needed was the platform for data-sharing and the permission to release it. The Socrata platform on which the City released its open data portal allowed us to share the data we were already collecting in multiple formats. Our new police chief came in with a desire for transparency — which provided the permission — so all that was left was to decide what to release.

The first data set we selected was crime data. Rather than release all calls for service (a possibility for the future, but we decided to crawl before we started to run), we made the decision to focus on Part I incidents, which are those offenses that are annually reported to the FBI for inclusion in its Crime in the United States report. Those offenses are homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary/breaking and entering, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

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Mayor Stodola speaks at a Little Rock Police Academy graduation ceremony. Photo credit: @LittleRockMayor.

The LRPD conducts weekly COMPSTAT meetings, where commanders go over activity from the previous week to discern trends and come up with strategies to meet the changing issues the City faces regarding crime. Since we were already tracking Part I incidents for our internal COMPSTAT meetings, it was no trouble to reconfigure the same Excel spreadsheets that we used to feed the crime graphs for use in the City’s portal. We have since directly linked the data to the Department’s Records Management System, so crime data can be automatically pulled into the portal without having to go through anyone’s hands.

The full COMPSTAT presentation was more detailed than we were comfortable releasing to the public, and there was an issue with releasing addresses for sexual offenses out of a concern for identifying possible victims, so we pared down the information to five fields: incident number, incident address (for all incidents except rape), incident date, incident description, and incident district. We included the incident district as a way to allow residents to track crime by neighborhood. In addition to the Part I incident data set, we also published the data on the City’s new Citizen Connect site, allowing residents to view the incidents happening around them by searching for their address.

We also published a map of police facilities and are working on an interactive map of all neighborhood associations in the city. Our monthly departmental demographic breakdown — which analyzes the race, ethnicity, and gender of the department by division, by civilian versus sworn personnel, and by rank — is now available as well. We also are working on demographic reporting for traffic citations. Additionally, we plan to mine other departmental reports for data sets on uses of force and resident complaints.

As a former journalist, I am encouraged to see open data being embraced this way. Advances in technology and, more importantly, a growing spirit of openness, allows governments to share data efficiently and in a way that is more accessible — not just to the media but directly to the residents we serve.

And as we get feedback from the public (and from journalists, too, I guess), I look forward to finding ways to cooperate in this new atmosphere of openness, where we provide information before we’re asked for it. It’s particularly satisfying for me when I receive a request for data and am able to tell someone, “It’s already out there — on our data portal.”

Jim Brooks has been the Crime Analyst Supervisor for the Little Rock Police Department since 2009. Before that, he spent 18 years, mostly on the police beat, at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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