If the American public, much less journalists or policy makers, are ever going to get a real grasp of how police interact with the public, what is needed is a clear and comprehensive data presentation that can be easily accessed, searched, and compared. There have been past efforts to reach this goal. The FBI has a use-of-force database that started in 2018, but participation and reporting are voluntary. The Washington Post has been tracking fatal police shootings for more than five years, and their research, for example, shows near 1,000 over the past 12 months.
More data and more clarity are needed, and the Police Data Accessibility Project (“PDAP”) hopes to provide both. PDAP started in the early days of the COVID pandemic, when Kristin Tynski “scraped” the publicly available police records of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she lives.
A “scrape” is a search routine that not only finds data but also gathers information by copying documents. When Tynski scraped the police records in Palm Beach, she found that despite the fact that the county is 75% white, the overwhelming majority of traffic stops and citations involved people of color.
She posted a presentation of the data, and “it blew up,” she said. “I wanted to capture the momentum, because I know how much work trying to get this for most police departments will be.” PDAP came into being immediately afterward. The long-term goal is to scrape data from police databases nationwide, standardize the information, and make all of it public. Tynski is clear-eyed about the enormity of the project and its potential difficulties.
“I realized how big the project was while doing the scraping of my own county,” she said. “It’s complex, and most county systems are antiquated and filled with bugs. Getting this done—outside of some top-down government mandate—will require writing scrapers for hundreds, possibly thousands, of county websites. I would argue it’s worth the effort, and something we can get done.”
If PDAP is successful, one of the primary obstacles to building consensus about police accountability will be overcome, and the debate might move from the nature of the problem to possible solutions.
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