Sandra Bland was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a lane change in Prairie View, Texas. Though details are still unclear, this traffic stop became confrontational and led to her arrest, which was captured on a dashboard camera video taken from the trooper’s vehicle. Tragically, Bland died while in police custody; on Friday, her death was ruled a suicide.
Since its release by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), footage of Bland's arrest has gone viral. Along with the video, DPS issued a press release assuring its commitment to conducting a thorough and impartial investigation of this traffic stop. Is this a step toward a new normal in investigating police-involved incidents?
Increasing police transparency and information sharing
The White House has strongly promoted the idea of increasing police transparency to restore community trust after high-profile incidents of civil unrest and clashes between police and protesters throughout 2014 and into 2015.
President Obama recently launched the Police Data Initiative to help accelerate progress around data and technology in policing. The 21 police departments (mostly large jurisdictions) participating in the initiative have committed to releasing a combined total of 101 never-before-released datasets to the public, including things like police use of force, pedestrian and vehicle stops, and officer-involved shootings. That seems quite promising.
But, the rest of the country—covered by over 12,000 local police departments—doesn’t seem to be there yet. According to the latest Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) Survey data, no more than 40 percent of local police departments with their own website provide the public with jurisdiction-wide crime statistics online (LEMAS data are collected every three or four years—most recently by the Urban Institute—to draw a national picture on a range of police-related topics). If you want to know about crime in a specific neighborhood, then that number drops to only about 23 percent. Even fewer—one in five local departments that have their own website—provide the public with crime maps showing the location of crimes in their jurisdiction.
How law enforcement agencies are (and aren’t) using social media
As recognized by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, social media has the potential to improve a wide range of law enforcement activities, including community building and relations, fear reduction, and intelligence gathering. Surveys show that social media is already gaining popularity among law enforcement agencies.
The LEMAS data show similar trends. Facebook in particular is quite popular among law enforcement agencies, with nearly all large departments serving more than half a million residents reportedly using it. Nationwide, an estimated 5,200-plus agencies are on Facebook. But again, much of the action is with large jurisdictions.
Few local police departments engage in social media outlets like Twitter (15 percent) and YouTube (6 percent) to share information and interact with the public. The smaller the agency, the less likely they are to do this. The extent of social media engagement or data sharing is generally even more limited among sheriff’s departments than local police departments.
Police departments can and should do better
Taken together, it seems fair to say we still have a long way to go around police transparency. An important step to enhancing police accountability is collecting reliable data on crimes and police performance and allowing the public to access it. The latest national data on law enforcement management give us a reality check and remind us of areas for improvement beyond some high-visibility, high-priority one-off pilot projects.