The Police Advisory Commission (PAC) released its police complaint data dating back to 2009, as well as an API for that data, last week on OpenDataPhilly.org. The commission’s police complaint data represents only a subset of the total complaints that the Philadelphia Police Department receives, said Kelvyn Anderson, who leads the PAC, a citizen-led police oversight board that hears complaints against police officers.
The data, which will be updated monthly, is part of an ongoing strategy to give citizens police data so that they, too, can act as a police watchdog, Anderson said.
The data includes self-reported information about the complainant, the nature and status of the complaint and the district or unit the complaint targets. It does not include any further identifying information about the officers in question, which is a intentional omission, Anderson said.
Anderson is working with the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau to facilitate the release of all its police complaint data, he said. The PPD receives about 700-800 complaints annually, Anderson said, whereas the PAC receives anywhere between 50-300 complaints annually.
Anderson, a former journalist and data enthusiast, was excited at the possibilities that the data release would bring for the commission.
“This is a really good opportunity for small agencies like mine that suffer from a lack of resources,” Anderson said. “It evens the playing field between me and the police.”
This is a particularly striking data release for a few reasons. For one, the PAC is not an official city agency (despite City Council’s recent efforts to make it one), suggesting that the Mayor’s Open Data Executive Order is reaching a broader audience than its immediate city agencies.
What’s more, this data release offers a prime opportunity to help the PAC, an organization that plays an important role but that is often thought of as powerless, as the Daily News has reported. The commission ousted its chairman last summer following news articles that said that it was overworked, understaffed and stuck with a backlog of cases from 2009. One might hope that the local development community would create tools to streamline the PAC’s workflow and make it easier for the commission do its job.
Questions will naturally come about how accurate and how up-to-date, then, can the data be. As is often the case, that’s yet to be seen, but exposing data like this, that might be able to encourage trend-spotting and additional oversight, is a prime example of the hope for the open government movement.
Anderson hopes to continue requesting and releasing data to create a “citizens’ Compstat,” he said, referring to the data-heavy meetings the Police District conducts to analyze crime stats. His next focus is on allowing citizens to see data on fatal incidents involving police officers, or what is marked as “justifiable homicide.” It’s not clear if this data is part of the city’s Part 1 crime data release, and if it is, it may not be marked as such.
Updated 1/28/13 to make clear that this is not an exhaustive release of the the Philadelphia Police Department’s police complaint data.