We Need More, and Better, Data on Policing and the Criminal Justice System
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Commentary

We Need More, and Better, Data on Policing and the Criminal Justice System

The lack of quality data on policing reflects the poor state of transparency in the criminal justice system and is holding back law enforcement reform efforts.

As ideas are discussed around the country about how to pursue meaningful police reform, one issue area that is sometimes overlooked is the lack of quality data on policing and the criminal justice system as a whole.

“Big data” and the intelligence revolution has spurred advancements for businesses and governments but these trends have mostly been ignored by law enforcement agencies. Local and state police departments have failed to meet contemporary data reporting standards, which means most police departments cannot produce meaningful reports about the state of law enforcement in their jurisdictions. Take the war on drugs as an example.

One may wonder how many people have been convicted of felonies for marijuana possession charges? How many people carry felonies for drug possession? How many people have been abused by police power while dealing with a drug-related arrest?

The answers to those questions are largely unknown. There is no database that can accurately report those numbers. The best we have are estimates compiled from pilot programs and other academic and media efforts.

How can this be the state of criminal justice data in the midst of such a widespread data revolution across so many other areas of society?

One primary reason is that states have collectively failed to determine standards for data reporting, something the private sector has developed and adapted for public use.

One of the best examples of data innovation in the public sphere is XBRL US, which is a non-profit consortium of businesses that regularly meets and agrees to universal data definitions, mostly related to financial reporting.  XBRL standards ensure that the corporate financial data is easily located and that it is comparable across institutions.

Recognizing the benefits of standardization, including transparency and data integrity, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began mandating XBRL reporting for public companies because it was so easy to define, collect, and review the information that is required by regulations.

Public institutions like police departments, judicial districts, and prison systems should develop a governing body like XBRL US to establish universal data definitions.  These standards can then be easily programmed into data collection software, which is often open-source and maintained by non-profits and other accountability groups. The data could also be distributed quickly and cheaply to police departments and other parties around the country, helping them better identify and implement best practices.

The Police Data Initiative, which says it has worked with 130 law enforcement agencies who have released more than 200 datasets to date, and others like it are a good start for data movement. But for the most part, these groups are only able to compile links that redirect to state and local police databases.  Without standardization and reporting requirements, it’s nearly impossible to construct a meaningful national database of law enforcement information let alone retrospectively determine something like the number of people convicted of something like drug possession.

The data is needed for a variety of reasons and it should be recorded and reported in such a way that the information is easily digestible by both machines and humans.  Reporting data into a pdf form, for example, is a common practice of governments but that data is not machine-readable by a program like Microsoft Excel.

Additionally, based on the standards set by the national body, police should have digital devices with pre-arranged forms that capture a large majority of the activities they engage in. Those devices should feed into the central database in near real-time, or at least be updated on a daily basis.

Just as it would be illegal for a public company to omit certain data on its annual report, it should be illegal for police to engage in certain activities without reporting it. The advent of body cameras and cheap data storage makes it possible to review videos and help record data properly.  Artificial intelligence may also be able to assist in decoding video in order to record the activities transpiring in the tape.

If policymakers and taxpayers had a daily update of police data that recorded and reported the actions and statistics of policy departments’ everyday activities, transparency would increase and the potential for abuse would likely be greatly reduced.  We could then use the data to develop more effective and scientific methods to target interventions to reduce undesirable behavior.

While the nature of police work will never lend itself to the same widespread data standardization witnessed in the finance industry, for example, it is an unacceptable inconsistency that governments can categorize, criminalize, and enforce laws but claim they do not have the technological capabilities to record and report those activities for transparency and accountability purposes.

Data reporting and standardization is a much-needed criminal justice reform. Moving forward, police departments and institutions involved in the criminal justice system should prioritize data reporting and standardization.

Spence Purnell is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, where he works on pension reform, Florida policy issues and economic development.