Journalist creates database to improve online access to police procedures

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The more that Buzzfeed journalist CJ Ciaramella worked to find information on local police department procedures online, the more frustrated he became — now, he’s taking matters into his own hands.

Ciaramella, a Washington editor for the site, discovered that departments in 13 of the nation’s 25 largest cities fail to post any information about their operating procedures to their websites, and many others merely have outdated documents available.

So, with a little spare time around the end of 2015, he set about compiling a central database for the police procedures in those cities that are posted online, and filing public records requests to gain access to the rest of the manuals. He since expanded his scope nationwide, and he’s now investigated 34 different departments.

“Over the past couple years, there’s been a lot of focus on use of force policies, so it was interesting to me that a lot of places don’t even put the rules that govern their police officers online,” Ciaramella told StateScoop. “I started doing it for my own purposes since I file a lot of records requests, so I thought other people, researchers and other journalists, might be interested in it, so I just started throwing it up.”

Overall, Ciaramella said he couldn’t “really discern any rhyme or reason between which cities post their operating procedures or manuals online and which ones don’t.”

Indeed, he found that some police departments make their policies particularly accessible — cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle post the most recent versions of their police procedures online in machine-readable formats.

Others are less friendly to open data connoisseurs, as 17 of the cities Ciaramella examined post their manuals merely as static PDF files. Of those cities, four departments only have information available that’s several years old.

“They all do it in different ways, there’s no standardized thing, so it varies,” Ciaramella said. “Some are easy and searchable, others less so … it just depends on who’s doing it and how much they actually care about making sure the data is out there.”

Some manuals aren’t available online at all, with San Diego, Baltimore, Memphis and three cities in Texas (El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston) all declining to post any procedures on the Web.

On the database, Ciaramella wryly noted that Houston police in particular were “kind of jerks” about not releasing their procedures, citing their refusal to release the department’s use of force policy without heavy redactions. The department told The Houston Chronicle that sharing information on the practice could “compromise officer safety,” and an opinion by the Texas Attorney General supports that decision.

Ciaramella added that the situation in Baltimore is unique as well. Police there will make sections of their “General Orders” available, but only if interested parties pay up.

“You have to send checks for $10 per section of their ‘General Orders’ if you want them,” Ciaramella said. “It’s not online, you have to pay to get individual sections. I don’t even know how much the entire thing would cost.”

Atlanta makes their full manual a bit more readily available, charging $22 for a CD version of their policies, Ciaramella said.

But he admitted being puzzled as to why this area was so contentious, given that the information has value to the public and that each department chooses to regulate its officers in vastly different ways.

“Police departments set their own policies, there’s no national standards,” Ciaramella said. “Departments around the country are free to set their own policies, so they all do it in different ways and call them different things.”

Ciaramella doesn’t think this dearth of police procedure information is a deliberate effort by the departments but merely the product of a lack of awareness of its value.

“In some cases, there might be some police departments that actively don’t want to release it, but in most cases though, it’s just never been a priority,” Ciaramella said. “I don’t imagine there’s big open data people in police departments pushing for this … It probably didn’t even cross a lot of departments’ minds.”

In the coming weeks and months, Ciaramella hopes to speak with more people inside the departments to understand why the information is so scarce online, and continue to expand the scope of the database. Ultimately, he’d like to include information on local sheriff and jail policies on the site as well, though he admitted this effort is just a “side project” for him, so it may take some time.

But no matter what form it ends up taking, Ciaramella said he thinks his modest site can end up being a substantial resource for anyone interested in the issue.

“There are a lot of smarter people than me out there working on police stuff, so I was like, ‘Well, someone else out there might find it useful and do something really cool with it,’” Ciaramella said. “I just did it for my own purposes as a public records requester, but I’m sure there’s programmers and data people out there who might be able to do pretty cool stuff with it.”

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Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Digital Services, Freedom of Information Act, Georgia, Law Enforcement, Maryland, Open Data, Open Government, police procedures, Public Safety, State & Local News, States, Tech News, Texas, transparency, Websites
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