Nationwide, police departments have been subverting a federal initiative for transparency by ignoring requests for statistics on use-of-force incidents.
Only 53 jurisdictions out of 17,000 have committed to the Obama administration’s Police Data Initiative, according to The Washington Post.
The lack of cooperation with the voluntary program means the public has little idea about citizen and police interaction aside from anecdotes and independent tracking by media publications.
The jurisdictions which have provided statistics encompass about 41 million people and include New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Baltimore, among others.
“These commitments represent concrete steps toward building trust and speak to a larger shift in the culture of policing,” the White House proclaimed in a press release.
The lackluster national response, however, dampens the highfalutin optimism of the White House. It’s also something the White House has little influence over beyond exhortations and grand initiatives.
“The federal government cannot require local police agencies to do such reporting, so the program is voluntary,” the Post noted.
The FBI gathers statistics on crime, but other data isn’t so systematized. For other sorts of police-citizen interactions, it’s necessary to file public records requests or rely on journalists to sporadically cover incidents. The Post’s database of police shootings has prompted the FBI to collect similar data, but it won’t take effect until 2017.
The apathy from police departments hints at a national problem of accountability. When a police department uses a SWAT team, for instance, Utah is the only state with a law that requires departments to report their use. Like The Post did with police shootings, the ACLU tracked the use of SWAT teams before any federal agency or state legislature required statistics to be recorded.
The lack of transparency in those instances make it difficult for police and the public alike to have an accurate understanding of police tactics and how effective they can be. It also breeds mistrust between officers and the public. Without data on how many police shootings or SWAT raids occur, observers can’t tell if instances have increased or decreased, or what its effect on crime has been.
Some information, such as police body cameras, have become the battleground for transparency.
“Preventing the public from drawing its own conclusions undermines trust in the police, the courts and the city’s leadership. Democracy requires information. We can’t make informed decisions about how we’re governed if the people governing us don’t give us information,” Criminal Justice Reporter Radley Balko wrote.
More accountability and transparency benefits the police. When the public can see footage, or knows relevant statistics, the police can point to the evidence when they’re the target of false claims.
The Police Data Initiative could better inform the public. So far, however, police jurisdictions have been reluctant to embrace it.