Criminal Law

Release of police info draws suspicion, but it helps some defense attorneys

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Last August, the New Orleans Police Department publicly released data around its policing practices. Along with 23 other police departments, the NOPD is providing the public with a new look at policing as a member of the White House’s Police Data Initiative.

“When government releases data in a proactive and transparent, incident-level way, then that changes the conversation with the public,” says Denice Ross, a presidential innovation fellow at the White House.

Born out of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing—a response to events in which unarmed black men died in confrontations with police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the New York City borough of Staten Island—the initiative aims to improve internal accountability for police departments. The data released is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it may include shootings by police, traffic stops, citizen complaints or 311 calls.

In seeking interviews of attorneys and lawyer organizations for this article, the lack of awareness about the initiative was striking. Those who responded declined to be identified by name.

Some lawyers, however, voiced general suspicion around the utility of the data. One civil rights attorney thought the bulk release of data by police departments was the equivalent of a discovery dump, where valuable information is hidden amongst a larger collection of documents. Other attorneys felt rudderless without a computer scientist or statistician on staff.


North Carolina has faced the challenge of using its open police data for more than a decade. Before Charlotte and Mecklenberg County became initiative sites, most law enforcement agencies in the state made their traffic stop data public. However, this data was a series of undecipherable numbers.

In 2013, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, located in Durham, started to actively contextualize traffic stop data. “The way the data is reported and aggregated makes it very cumbersome,” explains Ian Mance, a staff attorney at the coalition leading its Open Data Policing Initiative.

In Orange County, North Carolina, public defenders used the data to help dismiss charges in four separate cases over the past three years. In each case, the same two police officers were involved in a traffic stop and search of a Hispanic driver. The data showed that these two officers were responsible for 60 percent of all Hispanic searches in the county.

“These guys were systematically and exclusively targeting Hispanic drivers,” Mance says. Using data to illustrate racial profiling led the prosecution to drop charges related to the searches or to dismiss cases outright.

While this data can be used in court, its legal application should not be a concern for police departments, says Eric Piza, an assistant professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “I’m not entirely sure that the police releasing this information pre-emptively causes all that much of a threat,” Piza says. “All of this information is public information anyway.”

Perhaps this is why police departments are lining up to open their data for public inspection. Originally, the initiative included 21 police departments. Since then three more have been added, and there is another batch of departments to come.

Mike Ramos, the president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association and district attorney of San Bernardino County, California, sees projects like the initiative as the right step forward.

“I think it’s going to open the eyes of the public to the dangers of the job of peace officers,” he says. He also believes that this transparency will improve community relations.

Police departments in North Carolina are using the data for self-improvement. For example, Mance says, the data can show which police officers have the best seizure rates. The information can help create better practices within that department.

With the data less than a year old, it is not yet known who will make the best use of it. Ross, who has worked in public data for 15 years, says it depends on who you are.

“People find hooks in the data that make it relevant to them,” she explains.

Ross draws a comparison between oceanographers and fishermen. Oceanographers are trained data scientists, and fishermen are those looking for one or two data points that matter to them. “You don’t have to be a data scientist,” she says, “to fish through a data set to find records that connect to your reality.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Data Dump? Release of police info draws suspicion, but it helps some defenders.”

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