Data Initiative Aims To Help With Police Force Transparency

Apr 28, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:08 pm
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Protests against police in recent years have exposed a surprising fact. It is the absence of reliable facts. If you're a public official and you tell an aide, get me some stats on police misconduct, the answer comes back, there are no good numbers. So it's hard for us to know what we're really talking about. The White House now proposes to change that, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Seth Stoughton teaches at the University of South Carolina Law School, where he researches police use of force. His work relies on statistics, but getting those isn't easy.

SETH STOUGHTON: You could probably figure out how many radishes were imported into the United States last year, but you can't figure out how many times officers pulled their triggers. That's really embarrassing.

KASTE: The Obama administration seems to agree.


RON DAVIS: Data is a clarity that we need.

KASTE: That's Ron Davis, director of community-oriented policing services at the Justice Department, preaching the gospel of transparency to a group of police chiefs last week.


DAVIS: Providing open data's telling your community that one, I serve you. Two, I'm not afraid what the data says. And in fact, I see that as so critical to my job, I don't know how I can be effective if I don't collect the data. And three, if there are issues that we need to address, then let's do it together.

KASTE: This is the new thinking in policing, that posting data in a way that's easy to download and analyze can rebuild trust between cops and community. Dallas Police Chief David Brown is a believer. He says his department won over critics by posting detailed data on police shootings.


DALLAS BROWN: Facts became the great equalizer for us because we're able to show facts over a decade that support that our officers are doing the job. And when they don't, we hold them accountable.

KASTE: But data can cut both ways. Police in Durham, N.C. found that out when they gave raw traffic stop numbers to Travis Taniguchi, a research criminologist at RTI International. He compared their nighttime stops to daylight stops when officers could see the drivers race. Durham PD didn't think it had a problem with racial profiling, but his analysis came to a different conclusion.

TRAVIS TANIGUCHI: Basically, it looks like the bias is apparent for African-American drivers, and it gets more dramatic when you limit it to black males.

KASTE: His analysis tool has now been posted online, and anybody can use it, which means other police departments can expect the same kind of scrutiny if they release their traffic stop data. But that's still a big if. Right now the administration's police data initiative is purely voluntary. In fact, they're not even setting standards for how the data should be collected. Seth Stoughton says that's potentially a big problem because police are all over the map with their stats. For instance, some of them count drawing their guns as a use of force while others don't.

STOUGHTON: And if they're reporting whatever they consider to be a use of force, it can make it all but impossible to actually get a meaningful comparison.

KASTE: He thinks the White House might be avoiding setting standards right now because it doesn't want to spook departments that are considering opening their data. So at least for now, the U.S. is still a long way from having reliable national numbers on how police do their jobs. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.