The Richmond Police Department recently went live with a new online portal dedicated to providing statistics and data on law enforcement activities in the city, completing its commitment to the Police Data Initiative started by the Obama administration in 2015.
Joining the ranks of Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, the city’s website, Richmond Open Data, provides general information on categories such as calls for service, traffic stops and use of force incidents in a spreadsheet format, which can be downloaded as a whole or visually represented in charts and graphs.
“It’s another aspect where the public and community can connect and get information without having to go through a live person,” said RPD Chief Allwyn Brown. “It makes the information accessible and available immediately.”
The website provides a glance into a police department once hailed for its emphasis on community policing under former chief Chris Magnus. Since early January, 2015, the department has responded to over 130,000 calls for service and made almost 46,000 traffic and pedestrian stops, according to the website.
The portal’s development began in May, 2015, when Richmond became one of 21 cities across the country to sign on to the Police Data Initiative, started by then-President Barack Obama as a result of recommendations made by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force was viewed largely as a response to public outcry surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young men of color during interactions with law enforcement.
Richmond’s own experience with this nationwide issue came into the spotlight with the death of Richard “Pedie” Perez, who died in an officer-involved shooting in September, 2014.
Demnlus Johnson III, Richmond’s newest addition to the Citizen’s Police Review Commission, said he thinks the website is an “excellent tool” for transparency and building trust between the RPD and Richmond residents.
“From the time of paddy rollers up until the Richmond Cowboys, the trust for law enforcement in communities of color has been almost nonexistent,” Johnson said, adding that the issue has largely stemmed from a lack of communication and accountability.
The website may help bridge that gap, but its development has been years in the making. In October, 2015, the Richmond City Council approved a $70,400 contract with Socrata, Inc., a company specializing in providing data services for local governments and the public sector, to develop the portal for the police department.
Since then, RPD has worked with the company to link up systems and automatically populate the portal, Brown said.
David Maass, a senior investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a local nonprofit focused on digital civil liberties, said that the RPD’s portal is similar to several other websites developed by Bay Area police departments, but that the inclusion of maps was an interesting addition.
The process has not been without its setbacks, though. “The original project manager for this undertaking had some delays, and it sort of dropped off of our radar,” Brown said, adding that the department had hoped to release the website last year.
In early December, 2017, the portal was close to being finalized, but portions of the website regarding use of force incidents and complaints filed against police officers were taken down. Brown said the Richmond Police Officer’s Association raised the issue with the department, claiming that the way the data was presented could have violated the law. “So, we had an obligation to take a look and see, and make some adjustments,” he said.
A city official who saw the data, but asked not to be identified, said that they believed it was because some of the information could have been used to identify police officers who have used force or had complaints filed against them.
California has some of the nation’s strictest laws regarding the disclosure of police personnel files, codified by the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act. Under the act, information related to investigations, disciplinary action, promotions and other identifiable factors cannot be released without a judge’s order.
Yet, when the San Francisco Police Department posted its monthly use of force reports for 2017, it included an employee identification number, as well as the officer’s ethnicity, age and number of years in the service.
Amended and re-released, the current use of force data shows that there have been 330 reported incidents involving the use of force between January 3, 2015 and November 22, 2017. Over 55 incidents involved a Taser, making it the most common use of force tactic reported by the RPD, according to the website. However, 30 entries do not describe the force tactic used, so a complete analysis is difficult.
Data on the portal also shows that, over the same period, officers responded to 36 calls regarding a mental crisis that resulted in the use of force, making it the most common call type to result in the use of force. Brown said this is largely due to the fact that social services for people dealing with mental health issues have been cut, often making police officers the first responders for individuals going through a mental health crisis or psychotic episode.
Without further auditing and research, however, Maass cautions anyone from fully relying on the data to characterize the police department.
“Remember that this is a document created by an agency whose job is not to do science,” he said. “Police officers are not trained in statistics. It’s only as good as the officers are trained.”
For some, such as the Perez family, the website is just another example of the continuing disjuncture that exists between law enforcement and residents in the city. “I think it’s propaganda, basically,” said Rick Perez, Pedie’s father. “They [RPD] always release information that works in their favor, and they are reluctant to release information that isn’t.”
For others, though, it is a step in the right direction. “There is always room for improvement, and in government things moving slow has always been the norm,” Johnson said. “But if we’re going to be a city of the future, we need to keep things moving.”
It is now up to the residents of Richmond to determine whether or not RPD’s new data portal provides an acceptable level of transparency. Brown acknowledged that there were still aspects of the portal that needed to be finalized.
“It’s a work in progress. I think there is sufficient information to sort of provide a flavor for what has been going on,” Brown said. “And obviously going forward things will be clear, but, going backwards, there is still a lot of work to be done.”