Building Trust Through Data Transparency
By Jessica Barker
Law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve have more opportunity than ever to connect with one another due to technological advances in the internet and social media. However, these advances bring their own set of challenges. Media is no longer confined to the daily paper. Rather, citizens are flooded with articles, images, and videos from every direction. When law enforcement agencies are not proactive in creating a healthy relationship with their community, other sources can paint a picture of local law enforcement that may or may not be accurate. In an age when every person can be their own journalist and videos of negative interactions between police and citizens become viral on social media, it is imperative that open channels of communication are in place before conflict arises. Agencies need to ensure that two-way communication is present so that citizens know their city officials are operating in an open, transparent manner. This increases trust and helps streamline agency processes of responding to public information requests.
The need for a good relationship with the public has certainly always existed, but it is now more crucial than ever. This rising demand is evident in responses by both local and federal entities within the past few years. In December 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to help build trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and their communities. According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), the need to embrace the use of technology and digital communications while balancing the public’s expectations of their access to their local law enforcement is one of the main focuses of the initiative. Because technology has made it easy to connect with individuals on the other side of the world with just a few simple clicks, citizens expect to be able to have that same kind of relationship with the police in their community.
The increased media attention and public scrutiny of the past few years have only heightened the need for agencies to be more transparent with their communities. Although some may only think of body cameras when they consider transparency in law enforcement, there are many software options available that can put agencies on the right track. One such option is to use software to provide citizens with data on crime statistics in their own neighborhoods. There are a myriad of ways for community members to find out about crimes happening in their area. Having that information come straight from the source instead of through third-party social media or news channels strengthens the trust the public places in their local law enforcement.
For example, agencies using programs such as CrimeMonitor, Lexis Nexis® Community Crime Map (formerly known as RAIDS Online), CrimeReports, or other public-facing crime mapping and analytical software can inform their citizens of important information, such as high-crime rate areas, traffic incidents during a certain time period, or even heat maps for grand theft auto in the area. The easiest way for agencies to disperse this type of data to the public is by providing a convenient site for community members to easily view nearby activity. This information comes directly from data the agencies are already gathering, creating a simple and streamlined process for transferring that information to the public. Doing this puts the knowledge in the hands of citizens and shows them that they can turn to their law enforcement during critical moments.
Tom Stoddard, system administrator at Issaquah Police Department in Washington state, discussed how having public-facing software empowers those who might be affected by the circumstances in a particular area with statistical information for that neighborhood.
“It’s showing people that live in the community, and those that are thinking of moving to the community, what is happening in their neighborhoods,” he said. “I think that right there is a huge service.”
Issaquah PD uses Spillman Technologies’ CrimeMonitor to push data to both Community Crime Map and CrimeReports in order to provide their community with up-to-date information on crime in the area. To help citizens quickly and easily navigate to the information, the agency maintains a direct link to CrimeReports on the homepage of their website. Stoddard believes this effort has helped to create an open line of communication with their community.
“I think the biggest things we face are trust and transparency,” he said. “Everybody’s wanting more open government; they always want to see what’s going on. Having [public-facing technology] in place makes them more engaged. They can see that we are out, we are doing things, we are talking to people, and we’re trying to solve crimes.”
Other software options include newer applications, such as CommunityConnect, Motorola Solutions’s public-facing native app. After installing the app on a smartphone or tablet, citizens can create a profile and receive emergency alerts distributed by local, participating public safety agencies. CommunityConnect also provides community members with a convenient way to submit non-emergency calls for service to participating agencies, as well as anonymous tips. This helps agencies maintain convenient and ongoing communication with individual citizens without tying up dispatch lines. By participating in a two-way channel of communication through apps like CommunityConnect, citizens take an active part in the safety of their community and agencies can help establish a feeling of trust between all parties.
Matt Jolly, a Product Line Manager for Spillman Technologies, agrees that allowing limited access to important data through software programs benefits the public as well as the agency in many ways. First, it creates a clearer picture of what is happening in the community by dispelling incorrect ideas about police officers and showing how they are serving the public.
“The majority of the public see officers on the road writing tickets and responding to crashes, but very rarely do they see all the other types of events that take place inside their community,” Jolly said. “Add to that the image the majority of media paints about law enforcement, and it’s a poor representation of what is actually happening.”
In addition to being valuable to the community, public data programs can also be beneficial to the agencies implementing them. Community members crave information when it comes to their families and neighborhoods, especially after negative interactions with police are shown online and the public is left wondering what is fact and what is speculation. Jolly believes in order to combat the torrent of public information requests, agencies need a software system in place that can ease the subsequent, time-consuming burden on agency personnel.
“Law enforcement agencies are better served pushing data to the public so they do not get trapped in the avalanche of requests,” Jolly said. “If they have systems that generate statistics and summary data, it’s far easier to push that data to the public in a format they can easily access, such as the web, to alleviate the manpower burden all the requests create.”
Stoddard said using an automated system to get all the information out to their community members has eased the burden on his personnel and freed up time to respond to other events out in the community.
“Anything that you can do to reduce the amount of calls for questions is huge and will pay off in the amount of reduced time it takes to answer generic questions to the community,” Stoddard said.
In an age when information is available at any time, anywhere, and from any device, people are not only used to having information at their fingertips, they expect it. Both Jolly and Stoddard agreed that in order to make public data access as useful to citizens as possible, the process needs to be consistent with what they have come to expect from their world.
“Being able to push out or make important data available for people is a godsend,” Stoddard said. “People in today’s society want to be able to grab something from their phone, see what they’re looking for and then go on with their lives. They don’t have to run into the PD and wait or things like that.”
Whether agencies use public-facing applications or other methods to provide insight into their operations, it is important that public safety officials have a strong relationship with their public. In order to help citizens feel like their city officials are being transparent, there needs to be two-way communication. Providing the public with crime statistics and opportunities to engage with law enforcement through public-facing software is a time-saving and convenient way to accomplish that goal. This puts the knowledge in the hands of the citizens and gives a well-rounded view of the agency, the community, and the relationship between the two.
Jessica Barker is an external communications specialist for Spillman Technologies, a Motorola Solutions company.