Central to this contemporary era of policing are calls for transparency and accountability. A common assumption is that transparency and accountability are inherently linked and that by simply increasing the amount of data available to the public, accountability and public trust will trend in a positive direction. As is often the case, the reality is that the issue is far more complex – more resembling a complex set of interconnected factors rather than a “point A to point B” linear system.
This article will explore where the notions of transparency and accountability in law enforcement come from, why they’re important, and a few of the resources available to agencies seeking to implement data disclosure systems.
Transparency and Democracy: An Ethical Framework
Accountability through transparency is fundamental to police reform efforts. This is all but a given now, but the idea that transparency is needed to ensure the legitimacy of law enforcement is a relatively recent development in understanding the role of government. A brief look at some basic political theory provides transparency’s philosophical and ethical underpinnings as a moral construct.
Early 20th century sociologists and political scientists, particularly German sociologist Max Weber, argued that the authority of governmental officials, such as police officers, is legal and rational in that police derive the authority to enforce the law through law and regulations established by a democratic state or government. This stands in contrast to law enforcement that, for example in the Middle Ages, derived its authority from what philosophers would describe as charisma, like that of an autocrat or dictator, or by traditional means such as in the case of inherited royalty or title. Weber’s theories are now considered foundational in the way social scientists understand the sources of authority.
In a democracy, the government’s authority comes from the citizenry’s consent, it follows that the citizens influencing policy decisions through their elected representatives are interested in being well-informed so that they make wise decisions about their governance. The transparency that invited scrutiny then is essential to maintaining law enforcement’s legitimacy among the public in a democracy.
Promoting Community Trust
“People are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do … The public confers legitimacy only on those they believe are acting in procedurally just ways” – President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015
The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing identifies building trust and legitimacy as its first pillar in a six-point plan to transform policing for the 21st century. The report calls for several concrete steps designed to improve the public trust in policing by regularly making public data regarding stops, summonses, and arrests and collecting survey data from community members and officers to assess the effects of policy changes and initiatives holistically.
The greater availability of data creates more knowable information for the members of the public. The general population, especially those with programming and analytical skills, are able to digest and react to more data than ever before. While this certainly increases transparency in policing, studies published by the Department of Justice and RAND Corporation point out that, to increase public confidence, there has to be a broad perception that this transparency leads to accountability – whether that’s the termination of officers engaged in misconduct or broader policy changes. Simply disclosing data without the “follow up” of meaningful accountability can unintentionally draw attention to wrongdoing and give the impression it is more widespread than it is.
Setting the Agenda, Delivering the Funding
Data made available through transparency efforts have the potential to be a key element in growing community trust in police. That same data is also critical to informing future research, which, in turn, will be used to build policies that can contribute to a more positive public perception of law enforcement. There are two basic components to the research and funding cycle:
Creating research priorities: Research proposals center around research questions – essentially what a study or review hopes to answer. When an academic or research team seeks funding for a study, that research question is supported by data from previous research as new findings typically pose further questions. Though this may appear to be a cycle, it is more accurate to view it as the evolution of the knowledge surrounding a subject. With greater access to law enforcement data, whether by mandate or voluntary reporting, researchers can ask better questions and have greater confidence in their findings.
Setting funding priorities: Policymakers, charged with strategically administering grants and appropriations, typically set a high bar when deploying public funds. They look for evidence derived from research that their funds will be impactful. Sufficiently representative data, both in quantity and quality, guide this decision-making process which can mean additional funding for law enforcement programs and operations.
Building Systems for Transparency
As data reporting technology changes and regulatory mandates require additional types of data transparency, think tanks and professional organizations have been at the forefront of creating best practices recommendations for agencies. The Police Foundation created a five-part guide to help agencies draft policies for making their data public. These recommendations center around generating awareness using tools like social media, outreach to community groups, and creating easy-to-use, public-facing portals. Case studies in the guide take these ideas out of the world of theory and into the real world, illustrating practical examples of how agencies have successfully met data reporting requirements
The International Association of Chiefs of Police published a guide on reporting use of force that goes into even greater detail, specifying discrete data points agencies might consider including as a part of a broader data transparency strategy. The model policies in the document suggest what types of reports should be included, the data parameters of use of force reports, and procedural workflows that simplify the reporting process for agencies.
Benchmark Analytics routinely partners with agencies tasked with expanding their data reporting capabilities. Using the Benchmark Management System®, agencies can streamline the task of reporting myriad and complex data to public police data portals. By doing so, agencies can play an important role in increasing public trust, which, in turn, can help increase resources available to law enforcement, ultimately increasing police effectiveness.