How one department is improving public safety with 'open data'

PoliceView helps make better use of officers’ time and the agency’s budgets and may foster more trust between police and communities

Law enforcement officers — and the agencies for which they work — have historically been a pretty insular group. Not too many years ago, the most common answer to any question from the news media or the public about an incident would be something like "We have no comment at this time."

Responses such as those are untenable today. The news media, the public, and many politicians are placing increasing pressure on police departments to account for activities such as how they are operating, where they are operating, and who they are arresting. Sadly, this pressure has led to a strain between police officers and the communities they serve at a time when a single, isolated incident can lead to catastrophic damage in police-community relations. In fact, some jurisdictions are stuck in a negative feedback loop created by a lack of productive two-way communication and a limited number of unfortunate, high-profile incidents.

Absent a robust public information office that regularly posts information to social media and makes public statement via the news media, the public often has no way to really see or understand the great work police officers are doing every day to keep people safe. One agency in Georgia is presently experimenting with a technology solution that may help fix that problem. As an added benefit, the tool they’re using is also helping the agency become more efficient and effective in fighting crime. 

Using Open Data to Communicate
In the business sector, open data tools let organizations understand more about themselves, and report on that data to others — this is particularly useful for publicly traded companies that have reporting requirements for Wall Street. In law enforcement, open data tools let police departments collect information from officers in the field or dispatch, store that data, and then pull reports out of the data to help visualize trends. 

By having greater visibility into what’s working (and what’s not) in areas such as arrests, convictions, and response times, the agency can make better-informed decisions about patrol staffing and deployment. Not only can this data collection help the department become more efficient and effective in crime fighting, it can also help agencies educate the community about their efforts.

The Johns Creek Police Department in Georgia recently launched a new open data tool designed to enable its residents to pull a range of police department statistics, community reports, and key goal progression. Dubbed PoliceView, this tool gives the citizens of Johns Creek the ability to search for the answers to questions about their local police departments, such as "How many arrests were made in my neighborhood in March?" or "What crimes have occurred near my child’s school?" 

According to the Johns Creek Police Department website, PoliceView is "powered by Socrata for Public Safety in partnership with SunGard Public Sector." The solution currently includes data sets for Incidents, CAD Calls for Service, Citations, and Accidents. Also available are Community Reports as well as data supporting the False Alarm Reduction Program and Traffic Enforcement Program. 

JCPD Lieutenant Jon Moses told PoliceOne, "This current set-up is unsustainable. New methods are needed to re-engage citizens with law enforcement, and in some instances, rebuild trust. Luckily, recent technological trends like open data allow for a collective change in this paradigm. Open data tools allow organizations to compile enormous quantities of information and then catalog, analyze, visualize, and report on that information in ways that were impossible before."

Previously, the public would need to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for pieces of data, wait for the request to be processed, and then sift through the information (sometimes in paper format). Open data tools make the entire agency story available and upfront for the citizens to find pieces of information as easily as they could search for something in Google. 

"The best aspect of PoliceView is that it is proactive on the part of the police department — citizens can easily find the data they need — it is all available in a publicly digestible format," said Lieutenant Moses. 

Improving Public Safety Through Data Analysis
As was previously mentioned, this sort of big data collection and analysis has major value internally, too. By analyzing the information, agencies are able to discover a lot about themselves. For example how much time officers spend responding to false alarm reports or if the agency needs to be prepared for certain times of the year when domestic disturbances are more likely than others. 

"It is well-known that drunk driving arrests are more common on New Year’s Eve than many other nights of the year," Lieutenant Moses said. "An agency using an open data tool could also learn that August tends to be a more dangerous month than July, allowing for manpower to be allocated accordingly. Identifying and visualizing these anomalies and inefficiencies are some of the major benefits that open data tools provide for public safety and justice agencies."

Obviously, this concept is not new — CompStat and other data tracking systems have been in use for many years. But the level of sophistication available in newer solutions is significant — we’re way beyond colored pins on a map here. With solutions such as PoliceView, all relevant crime stats, and information about the agency are just a click away.

A Nationwide Trend
Tools like the one being used in Johns Creek have sprung up across the country. Open data is at the heart of the White House’s Police Data Initiative, which provides recommendations on how police departments can use data to build transparency and trust in a community, and improve internal analysis and accountability. 

Chris Schoenmann of SunGard Public Sector told PoliceOne that the PoliceView solution was specifically designed so that it aligns closely with the Police Data Initiative and the recommended standards.

"Police relations need to improve significantly, and the public needs to feel it has visibility into the inner workings of their local agency," Schoenmann said. 

"The current regime nationwide — of asking citizens to submit requests for data, and having citizens wait for reports to be processed — is inconvenient at best," he added. 

"It’s time to provide a comprehensive, new view into the law enforcement community, where police officers can showcase the great work they do, and the public can understand how the system works. It is a dialogue we need to be having, and everyone will benefit from the experience. We are encouraged that agencies across the country understand this problem, and the value of open data in solving it," he said.

With shrinking budgets and increased demand from the public on their police, technology clearly will play a role in increasing efficiency and improving community relations. Perhaps the folks in Johns Creek, Georgia have found a solution to do both. 

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