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7 social justice projects tapping the power of police data

Read up on these data-driven initiatives meant to improve police oversight.

A look at Chicago's Citizens Police Data Project. (Screenshot)

This article is a sneak peak at a larger report on how technology is building a 21st-century criminal justice system. The full report will be released later in 2016 by the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with which the author is affiliated.

Following high-profile police involved deaths of Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, among others, police departments around the country are under a public microscope.

On account of increased public scrutiny and an internal desire to be more transparent, journalists, advocacy groups and police departments are creating novel portals to previously unavailable police data.

This increased access is changing the type of data being released. Previously, police data had largely pertained to crime itself, which focused on factors like the location and nature of an alleged crime. More recently, and thanks to high-profile initiatives like the White House’s Police Data Initiative, the data being released by the projects discussed below are around the act of policing, which includes response time to a call, the demographics of patrol stops, use of force and misconduct complaints.

Here are seven projects around the country that are making earnest attempts to improve oversight and understanding of the police:

1.) The Counted & 2.) Police Shootings

The Counted, by the Guardian newspaper, and Police Shootings, by the Washington Post, are two national projects attempting to collect an accurate number of police shootings and fatalities in the United States. The official number of police involved shootings and deaths from the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports is broadly seen as inaccurate because reporting these incidents, a job of local law enforcement departments, is not compulsory. Both papers partially crowdsource information from sites like Killed by Police and Fatal Encounters.

3.) The White House Police Data Initiative

Created through the White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a response to events in Ferguson and Staten Island, the Police Data Initiative provides assistance to improve internal accountability for police departments and transparency to the public through the release of open data. “When government releases data in a proactive and transparent, incident level way, then that changes the conversation with the public,” said Denice Ross, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House working on this initiative. The data released is different jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, but it may include officer-involved shootings, traffic stops, citizen complaints or 311 calls. Originally, the initiative included 21 police departments. Since then three more have been added, and there is another batch of departments to come. The goal is to make a concerted effort to release police open data sets around the country.

4.) Project Comport, Indianapolis, Ind.

Project Comport is data portal built for the Indianapolis Police Department by Code for America, the nonprofit civic hacking group. A White House Police Data Initiative site, Indianapolis’ public portal provides data on officer complaints, use of force and officer involved shootings in both a visualized and raw format for download. Working directly with the police department, CfA fellow Laura Ellena told GCN, “The goal of the project isn’t just to put open data out there. We’re really interested in what can happen after the data is available — what kind of conversations and collaborations between the community and the department of public safety can come from opening the data.

A visualization from the Washington Post's "Police Shootings" project.

A visualization from the Washington Post’s “Police Shootings” project. (Screenshot)

5.) The Cop Accountability Project, New York, N.Y.

The Cop Accountability Project is different from the other projects on this list, because it is intended for legal purposes and does not have a public portal. Built by and for the New York City Legal Aid Society, this database overcomes a restrictive law that limits freedom of information requests regarding police misconduct records in New York State. According to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a Legal Aid attorney leading this effort, this law and others puts their “back is against the wall.” The database project collects public documents related to NYPD police misconduct and populates a searchable database. Legal aid attorneys then use the information in bond hearings, plea negotiations and during impeachment to discredit police witnesses with a history of misconduct. As of fall 2015, the database included over 7,000 police officer names.

6.) Opening Police Data, North Carolina

Open Data Policing NC is a project born out of North Carolina’s open data law requiring the public release of most traffic stop data in the state. Before this project, the way the data is reported and aggregated made it “very cumbersome,” explained Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the group behind the database. The information derived from the data has since been used in court to vindicate defendants affected by racially motivated traffic stops. While this data has been available for over a decade, this is the first attempt to make the data usable through a user-friendly interface. Launched in December 2015 and piloting in North Carolina, the intention is to iterate this portal in multiple states.

7.) Citizens Police Data Project, Chicago, Ill.

Only a month old, the Citizens Police Data Project is a public database that collected and released misconduct complaint data on 8,500 Chicago police officers. According to Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, one of the project’s creators, this is the first time this dataset has been made available to the public. This database allows a user to search at the city, precinct or individual officer level. Currently, the project includes three different datasets:

  • officers with more than 10 complaints between May 2001 and May 2006;
  • officers with more than five excessive force complaints from May 2002 to December 2008;
  • and all officer complaints from March 2011 to September 2015.

The Chicago Police Department attempted to release all misconduct data dating back to 1967, however, the Fraternal Order of Police, a union, is challenging the effort in court. Of the litigation, Kalven said, “We have every expectation that we will prevail over the FOP in this litigation.” If successful, this project will solidify itself as the largest collection of police misconduct information in the country.

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