Article by Charles Craft, Chief of Police, retired
Recent events have given rise to an almost universal call for law enforcement reform, transparency and accountability. It’s important to recognize these demands are not new. It’s also important to acknowledge that many in law enforcement have made great efforts to meet the demands. Unfortunately, these efforts have not succeeded in rebuilding the trust between police officers and the communities they serve. That said, there are new technologies available that tackle this issue head on and are already making a major impact. We just need to embrace them.
We Have a Long History of Police Reform Efforts
Formal calls for police reform date back nearly 100 years. The “Wickersham Commission”, formed in 1929, conducted the first comprehensive national study of crime and law enforcement in U.S. history. Among its conclusions was the recognition that in many cities law enforcement itself acted lawlessly. The Commission made numerous recommendations for reform; some of which were adopted and still exist today. The “Christopher Commission” created in the wake of the 1991 Rodney King incident, also made numerous reform recommendations among which was the call for accountability. More recently both the 2014 “President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” and the 2020 “President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice” call for the enhancement of public trust through accountability and transparency.
Many police agencies have responded to these calls for reform in a variety of ways. Community policing, annual reports, posting statistics and policies online, citizen academies, “coffee with a cop” programs, social media presence, in-car and body camera videos, are examples of attempts to establish transparency. In terms of embracing accountability, a review of virtually every police agency’s core values will reveal “accountability” prominent among their stated values.
Reform Efforts Haven’t Moved the Needle
In spite of the efforts of many to institute reforms, create transparency and establish accountability, incidents of misconduct and questionable behavior continue to occur and continue to erode confidence in law enforcement. Given all these efforts, police agencies still face growing discontent. Why? Because all of these efforts are either on too small a scale to be impactful or have been done in relative isolation from the community. Body cameras can be turned off. Social media can be faked. We don’t trust our next door neighbors, so why would we trust our police? Trust requires total transparency and vulnerability and the reform efforts to date haven’t yet achieved this.
Technology Has the Answers to Making Police Reform Work
What then can an agency do to effectively enhance public trust and confidence? The answer lies in utilizing technology. Technology that doesn’t just record data, but that brings that data to the surface for all to see. Technology that makes sense of the data so both the police and the community can see what’s really happening. And if some of that data shows that improvements are needed, then together reform efforts can be made to address those issues. And yes, technology can help with that too.
Public facing dashboards are needed to provide an open report on police performance. They communicate honestly and forthrightness, and express a commitment to the department’s policy of being accountable to the public. Transparently showing the community the demographics of arrests, citations and use of force is critical to trusting the future actions of police officers. The information needs to be easy to understand and address the concerns of the community.
Police departments also need this data to better understand their performance and better direct their efforts at improvement. Law enforcement executives and managers know, overall department performance is the aggregate of the individual actions of individual officers. Internally facing dashboards where data is clearly seen, easily analyzed and appropriately acted on, create individual officer accountability to both the department and the public.
That’s not to say that this is easily achieved. Police departments have wanted to do more with their data for years, but the reality is that their data is often siloed and much of data collection is still being done manually. These same data challenges have made it extremely difficult to see individual officer performance in its totality, in real-time, and to create individual accountability. Police data needs to be digitized and centralized in order to make sense of it, make it actionable, and make it available to all.
Transparency in Police Data Rebuilds Community Trust
The good news is that there are systems available today that have been custom built to digitalize and centralize police data. Furthermore, police standards are being set and comparisons can be made across agencies with indexes for performance. And it’s working.
There are many examples of communities who were asking for Police Chief resignations or were publicly humiliating their police with accusations of racial profiling who have turned things around completely by getting control of their data and using it to create transparency and accountability for their performance. And unlike historical reform efforts, this data transparency with the community is making a big impact. For example, a Police Chief won an award from the NAACP for doing this. A major metropolitan county reduced use of force by 22% and lawsuits by 62%. They are earning back community trust. And that’s a police reform we can get behind.