The state's Department of Justice is hoping to build the first statewide database detailing violent encounters between police and civilians.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, pictured at a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice event, is rolling out a new system for localities to report use of force data. (Wikimedia Commons)
California is rolling out a new tool to enable its police departments to electronically compile data on use of force incidents as part of an effort to build the first statewide database with detailed information on police shootings and other violent encounters.
The state’s Department of Justice launched “URSUS” Thursday, a web-based portal to let local law enforcement agencies report back detailed data to the state each time officers injure or kill someone, or are injured or killed themselves.
"As a country, we must engage in an honest, transparent and data-driven conversation about police use of force," California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement. "I am proud that California continues to lead the nation in the adoption of technology and data to improve our criminal justice system and keep our streets safe."
In an informal survey, Harris’ office found that roughly one third of localities collected the data electronically before, while another third used paper-based processes — the rest failed to collect any information on use of force incidents or report it back to the state.
But Assembly Member Freddie Rodriguez’s A.B. 71 — which received Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature last October — made it mandatory for agencies to collect a whole host of data points about those incidents. Under the new law, California’s roughly 800 departments will have to log things like the gender and race of the people involved and submit an annual report to the Justice Department.
The open source tool, which the department built in conjunction with the data science-focused nonprofit Bayes Impact, is aimed at helping the state meet those standards.
Departments have to submit their 2016 use of force data to the Justice Department by Jan. 1, 2017, and that information will go live on the state's OpenJustice portal in early 2017.
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According to Harris’ office, the Justice Department started work on the software quickly after the law’s enactment, adopting an “agile development” approach to building the tool. The department piloted the software with 12 agencies at first, eventually showing it off to police leaders and law enforcement associations around the state before making further tweaks.
Police agencies will be able to record through the portal throughout the year ahead of its annual submission to the state, and departments will even be able to run basic analyses on the data through the software, according to the attorney general’s office. If an officer is unsure whether they need to enter an incident into the system, Harris’ office notes that the portal will also include brief questionnaires to help them decide.
Once the Department of Justice has that data, Harris’ office said staffers will run their own analysis of the information and post both data visualizations and the raw data in a machine readable format to its “OpenJustice” portal.
Because the software is open source, Harris’ office is hoping other states will be able to start using it as well — police in Washington have already reached out about the portal’s potential.
The tool could prove to be relevant on a national level as well. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the “Police Reporting of Information, Data and Evidence Act” last year in an attempt to compel police nationwide to compile use of force data, and both released statements praising California’s work on the software.
“By using innovative technology and data to shed a spotlight on police practices that work and do not work, California’s A.B. 71 is an important precedent for the country,” Booker said in his statement.