Earlier this month I spoke at a conference called Looking Toward the Future of Civilian Oversight. The event was co-sponsored by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and the UDC School of Law. This was my first public introduction of Flex Your Rights’ new endeavor, Open Police Complaints (OPC).

My presentation remarks appear below this simulation of the latest OPC web app prototype.

Oversight Failure 101
It’s the Secrecy, Stupid
The Future of Open Police Complaints
A Unified Police Complaints Platform
Building Trust with Oversight Professionals
How Openness Pushes Accountability
Donate & Volunteer

Oversight Failure 101
In July 2007, Edward Nance, an African-American cable company employee and part-time high school referee got pulled over by two officers in Chicago’s South Side. Nance had no criminal record, but he was stopped because he didn’t have a front license plate. Things quickly turned bad for him.

When Nance asked the officers why they pulled him over, the first officer told him to “get the fuck out of the car!” The officer then slammed his head on the car’s hood, causing injuries to his neck and face. The second officer forcibly handcuffed Nance, jerking his arms back violently, injuring tendons in his shoulders as well as one rotator cuff. He required two shoulder surgeries to repair the damage.

About two years later, a federal jury found the officers had used excessive force. They awarded Nance $350,000 in damages for his injuries. The judge then ordered the city to pay an additional $180,000 to cover his legal fees. However, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority found all allegations against the two officers to be not sustained. They decided there was “no way to determine” the precise cause of the complainant’s injuries. Neither officer was disciplined.

On October 20, 2014, a police dashcam captured footage of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was armed with a 3-inch knife. We now know about this story despite the bad faith efforts by the City of Chicago to block the release of that horrible video. It’s inevitable release forced City officials to finally bring first-degree murder charges against Officer Van Dyke – who just so happens to be the same officer who violently handcuffed Edward Nance in 2007.

When he heard about this connection, Nance burst into tears. He said “It makes me feel like it could have been me. If they had done something about this cop in my case, this young boy would still be alive.”

It’s the Secrecy, Stupid
We now know that during Van Dyke’s 14-year career at least 20 civilian complaints have been filed against him. Most of them involved allegations of excessive force, and at least one complaint alleges he used a racial slur. None of these complaints led to disciplinary action.

But we only know now about Van Dyke’s complaint history, because this too was just made public last month. This is thanks to a public database created by the non-profit group, The Invisible Institute. The massive dataset includes 56,362 allegations of misconduct filed against 8,562 Chicago Police officers between May 2001 and September 2015. This is a beautiful and powerful model for how this sort of open police complaints data can be used and visualized. For example, you can view details of the 20 complaints filed against Jason Van Dyke.

It took 10 years of litigation and FOIA requests by a platoon of public interest lawyers to force the City to cough up this data. This is a scandal itself. But this sort of institutional secrecy is hardly unique to Chicago. Secrecy is a feature of state and local policing agencies across the country. So it’s no surprise that wherever we find departments whose workings are cloaked in secrecy – this is where we find the darkest acts of police misconduct being ignored or covered up.

The good news is that we are now in the dawn of a Golden Age of police data collection. This is thanks to the openness of the Internet. And this openness is accelerating the advancement of a universal, common language for how we can define and categorize policing data from all across the country.

The Future of Open Police Complaints
I believe we are moving towards a world with universal, real-time access to civilian police complaints data. This real-time data will be shared directly by the complainants themselves who will be able to control who has access to their confidential and personal information. Real-time police complaints data will be accessible to community groups promoting equitable policing. The data will be accessible to civil rights attorneys working to identify departments with patterns or practices of police misconduct. Real-time civilian complaints data will become an increasingly important management tool for conscientious police chiefs working to build community-oriented policing cultures.

For police oversight professionals, real-time police complaints will allow us to spend less time collecting, organizing and interpreting hand-written paper complaints. Instead, we can spend more time investigating important complaints. This will make it easier to identify officers with chronic misbehavior problems and hold them accountable before they become involved in a deadly but avoidable use of force incident.

What I’m going to show you is the first prototype of the Open Police Complaints web application. This service will be free to users. The data we collect will be open to the public – with the exception of certain personally-identifiable information. The interface is modeled after TurboTax – but instead of helping with your tax returns, we’re streamlining police complaints.

A Unified Police Complaints Platform
Before we did any coding on the web app, my technical team spent about eight months designing our relational database model. We wanted to make sure all of our data structures – including all the people, places, things, and events we capture – aligned with the most universal categories and definitions that fit with a national police complaints collection service. We also needed to make sure that our service could accommodate complaints that can be submitted to every one of the roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States.

I won’t bore you with details of the research I’ve done to identify our data needs – but suffice it to say, I’ve reviewed every recent DOJ report on police-civilian contacts I could find. I’ve examined the recent annual reports from the major civilian oversight agencies that release reports. And I’ve been working with some of the top experts in the field of police oversight.

These ongoing discussions with police oversight professionals reveal some important technical challenges of maintaining a unified police complaints platform. For example, many large municipal oversight agencies require that complaints be submitted on a government paper form in order to be investigated by their offices. (They usually require the complainant’s handwritten signature too.) These sorts of laws primarily serve to block otherwise legitimate complaints from being investigated. However, in order to make sure OPC complaints are best positioned to be investigated, we will find ways to adapt to these types of constraints.

Building Trust with Oversight Professionals
One question I’m frequently asked is how are we going to deal with malicious and fraudulent complaints? This is an important question, because abusive complaints threaten the integrity of our data and our institutional trust. However, we’ve developed some strategic countermeasures.

First, the design of our web forms is our first line of defense. In order for a user’s data to become relevant, they must complete the complaint-creation process. Like TurboTax, this requires a moderate investment of each user’s time. While each individual question is easy to answer, there are more questions than a casual troll trying to submit a malicious complaint will probably be willing to answer.

Some trolls, however, are persistent. That’s why we’ll require a second line defense of trained human administrators. Every new complaint we receive must first be reviewed by our admins, who will tag complaints that don’t require further investigation. These will include overtly malicious complaints as well as complaints that have nothing to do with the police (e.g. landlord or employment disputes). OPC admins will also tag complaints that are unlikely to be based on reality.

The more human effort we put into reviewing new complaints, the more investigators will trust our complaints. That’s why every complaint we submit to oversight investigators must include enough information for them to begin an investigation. For example, every OPC complaint will focus on a single police incident that occurred at a single place and time. Complaints must also include one or more allegations against one or more officers in a particular department. If OPC admins confirm that a complaint includes these things, it will be immediately emailed to the appropriate oversight contact.

How Openness Pushes Accountability
In order to create additional transparency, every complaint submitted to an oversight agency will become publicly searchable. Depending on the privacy settings selected by individual complainants, some public complaints will reveal the names and identities of individual officers. Complainants may also choose to remain anonymous. However, the names and identities of officers related to anonymous complaints will be hidden from public views.

We understand that some police departments might be upset about our open complaints. Nevertheless, such departments should respond by properly investigating complaints in a timely manner. They should also make details of their investigations open to the public in a timely manner. Because as Edward Nance’s story cautions us – police complaints are too important to be kept in the dark.

So in addition to improving the creation and transmission of police complaints, OPC will track how well or how poorly individual departments respond to the complaints they receive. This tracking process will also reveal best practices for how similar departments should respond to civilian complaints.

How to Donate & Volunteer with OPC
While we’ve completed the initial web app prototype, we have more testing to do before we begin OPC’s national rollout beginning in early 2016. In the meantime, here are some ways you can contribute your time, talent, or treasure to this effort. Please email me with the subject “Giving to OPC” to let me know how you’d like to help.

1) Your Time: We need volunteers who can help us build the nation’s most detailed online police department contact directory. This directory will be essential for identifying key contacts for receiving OPC-generated complaints. Your research will also help establish an “openness score” for each department. This will be based on the quality of complaint submission information they have available on the web.

You don’t need to be a coder to do this work. But you do need a keen eye for detail and basic web research skills. The interface for this work will be ready in the next few weeks. So you can either reply to me now about your interest, or you can keep your eyes open for upcoming emails about this volunteer opportunity.

2) Your Talent: We’ve assembled a talented core team of technical volunteers. But if you’re an experienced web or software development professional with a desire to contribute, we’d love to work with you too! (You can check out the OPC web app’s technical specs here.)

For example, if you’re a web designer who can make our WordPress website (this site) look extra slick – please email me. If you’re a data visualization guru who can do beautiful things with data, we could use your help. Or if you’re a UX or analytics whiz, please hit me up!

3) Your Treasure: If you’d like to support this project with a small or large tax-deductible donation, you can donate online here. (You can also mail check donations made out to Flex Your Rights to P.O. Box 21497, Washington, DC 20009.)

If you’re someone who’s connected with charitable foundations or philanthropic high-net-worth individuals, I’m open to your advice and introductions. Thank you so much!

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