How data can be a vital tool for police reform and equity
Better information can improve officer and community safety
Sponsored by Forensic Logic
By Police1 BrandFocus Staff
There’s plenty of ongoing debate about police reform and how agencies should address the call for change. But what doesn’t get discussed enough is the need for actionable information. Advances in data analytical capabilities have made it more possible than ever for police to achieve a preventative approach to policing by analyzing information and recognizing suspicious activities and patterns. However, the challenge today is that police data is inaccessible, often leading to less favorable outcomes in daily police work.
In an interview, Brad Davis, chairman of Forensic Logic, and Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who has served as Los Angeles County Sheriff from 2014 to 2018, explained how information could transform policing as a tool for reform and equity.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN WE SAY POLICE DATA HAS BECOME INCREASINGLY SILOED OVER THE YEARS?
Brad Davis: I think to answer that question, we really must go back to the events of September 11th. I believe that in the aftermath of that terrible day, the nation and the world woke up to the realization that the information landscape and the law enforcement community, the National Security community and the Homeland Security communities were broken. There was a sense of, “My gosh, there was all the information that we needed to stop this, but it was all stuck in a million different silos and fractured away down in a million different locked drawers.”
As a result, in the last 20 years, you’ve seen this massive disparity between the meteoric growth and capabilities and advancement in how humans access data in their daily lives and professions outside of law enforcement. However, unfortunately, law enforcement is still on so many of those legacy near-obsolete systems that were put in place almost 20 years ago.
Jim McDonnell: There are 18,000 roughly police departments spread across this nation. Information traditionally has been power. We’ve been a culture that keeps that information close to the chest. We have a right to know, a need to know before we’ll share information with anyone else. Then there are budget priorities. When you try and upgrade your databases – your access to information – that’s not something that usually you can get a lot of political support behind. That’s something that people expect just to happen.
WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF PREDICTIVE POLICING TOOLS?
Brad Davis: I think that predictive policing means a lot of different things to a lot of other people. I’m not talking about the Precogs in “Minority Report” here. What I would consider predictive policing is when you are in the absence of rich granular information on the offenders or offender networks. You are using statistical metadata and proxies to find offenders and proxies, usually neighborhoods or geographies. Another way to describe it would be like unvalidated hotspot policing where you have sort of the sense of, “Oh, geez, a lot of crime happens here. We’ll just focus on those areas.”
The result can be that you’re not getting at the core worst-of-the-worst offenders, the fraction of 1% that are doing the most damage. You are, though, running the risk of that heavy police footprint on rupturing and straining the trust between police and the community, which we can ill afford today.
I think our mantra is generally precision, not prediction. Leverage data in better ways so that you can more accurately identify those worst offenders, more accurately put those in handcuffs, and as a result, even remove or simply reduce police footprint in some of those hardest hit communities, and by so doing, create a level of trust and reduction in violent crime.
Jim McDonnell: When you hear the complaints from some of the communities that find themselves in very challenging positions, they’re overpoliced. When you can target your resources more strategically and go in with a surgical strike and being able to identify those that are preying on the rest of the community, when we do that, often the community will come out and clap and show their approval for what was going on because they’ve been held hostage in many cases by individuals particularly gangs, as we see in the more urban environments for over long periods. As Americans, we’re always doing that push and pull between additional security and civil liberties. We must be able to get our finger on the community’s pulse as to where we are today, and that changes day-to-day depending on circumstances that occur within communities. Still, we must police with the consent of the community. To do that and do it well, you need information, and you need to be informed.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF COPLINK AND ADVANCEMENTS IN SEARCH RESULTS DATA OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS?
Brad Davis: I think it’s always important to say that any sort of information platform consists of two things: it consists of the tech, and then it consists of the data – and both must be very strong. You wouldn’t use Facebook if none of your friends were on it. You wouldn’t go on Amazon if there was no reach back to products to buy. For many years, Forensic Logic had been working very hard to perfect this notion of, “How can we bring together structured, semi-structured and nonstructured data into a cohesive whole that can be accessed through a Google-like search bar?” because it’s a very tricky thing to do in this very fractured and disparate landscape that is law enforcement agency information.
That was one of the drivers of our acquisition of Coplink from IBM. In addition to some excellent analytics capabilities, consolidation technology, there was a great repository of data that was primed to be, if you’d say, modernized to move into that modern cloud-based era. So, by marrying the two together, the front end and the search engine technology we had, some of the technologies that came with COPLINK, and an enormous trove of data, we now operate arguably the largest law enforcement networking repository in U.S. law enforcement.
Jim McDonnell: Looking over the evolution of policing, just from a technology standpoint, think about how much a police officer has going on just in that car as they move around the city. They have a radio. They’re wearing body-worn cameras. All of these things are going on around the police officer while we still expect them to pay attention to the road and drive safely. Anything we can do to try and bring everything together and make it simple and make it instantly accessible takes one more load off their shoulders and allows them to focus on the people part of the business. Technology is an enhancement. It makes us much more efficient and more effective, but policing will always be a people’s business at the end of the day. If we can use technology to leverage that, then that’s really what it’s all about.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT INFORMATION LOOK LIKE?
Jim McDonnell: I think it’s to be able to embrace technology, to use it responsibly and to be able to be as effective as we can – and that starts with communicating with the people we work for, which is ultimately the public and the people that we report to which is our chain of command so that we get people to understand us better than they have. I think much of what we’re seeing happen today is due to a lack of understanding. We have great people in policing. They’re out there working hard, putting themselves on the line every day, but what they do is not well understood by the public.
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