Essay: Collection of crime data is inadequate and must be improved

Siren

As a national criminal justice data organization based in the city where Daniel Prude died, this is what we know: Nationwide, at least one in four deaths at the hands of police involves someone with serious mental illness. And this kind of tragedy disproportionately takes the lives of people of color

But that is pretty much all we know. Which is shocking. In states nationwide, we can’t tell you how often law enforcement are called in to handle what’s really a mental health emergency. We can’t tell you how many arrests for loitering, vagrancy, and disorderly conduct mask encounters with people who need help or treatment, like what Daniel Prude’s brother hoped for when he called 911. We can’t even tell you how many police officers have initial and ongoing training related to mental illness and de-escalation. 

Why? Because there are limited mandates for data collection when it comes to policing, and the mandates that do exist are inadequate. A new law passed on the heels of George Floyd’s death requires New York law enforcement to collect and release demographic data on low-level offenses and in-custody deaths. But this is really only a start for what is needed in New York and across the nation.

To truly get a picture of how the police interact with communities, we need to collect multiple data points not just on crime and arrest, but on everything from how often officers engage with community members outside of stops, to the mechanisms police departments have in place to hold themselves accountable to the communities they serve. 

The Rochester Police Department has a good public data portal that does link out to various policies and training manuals, but it mostly captures basic crime and arrest statistics. The city has also set up a civilian-controlled police accountability board, but its job is retroactive, and its disciplinary authority was recently stripped. The board won’t help solve the problem of not having data that are diagnostic and thus preventative.

The problem of missing, unavailable data is not unique to policing; it plagues all aspects of the criminal justice system and is the norm in every corner of our country. The country’s data infrastructure—its policies and practices–are an impediment to telling the story of how our criminal justice system really treats both minority and vulnerable populations, and to mapping precisely where and how change needs to happen.

Today we are awash in the names and faces of heartbreak. Daniel Prude, we’re saying your name. And calling on everyone to honor your name by committing to better, more transparent data. So we don’t have to say another name ever again.

Amy Bach is the Founder & CEO of Measures for Justice, based in Rochester.

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