West Sacramento Police will track the data and aim for change
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Writer
The West Sacramento Police Department is one of the first in the nation to implement a new set of nationwide policing measures developed with input from community leaders and police experts.
Announced by the nonprofit organization Measures for Justice, the standardized metrics will track department performance and practices and be made available to everyone through the organization’s online data transparency portal called Commons.
“The only way our criminal justice system can improve is to monitor its performance, isolate what works and what doesn’t, and develop evidence-based interventions. For all of this work, data is critical,” says Amy Bach, CEO of Measures for Justice.
The policing framework was created in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE). Measures for Justice brought together a diverse group of community leaders, academics, and advocates to focus on various aspects of policing, including trust in the department and perceptions of legitimacy; use of force; least harmful practices; responsibility; officer welfare and safety; budgetary needs and responsibility; as well as recruitment and training.
“These metrics will all be based on the principle that it is impossible to solve a policing problem without measuring and understanding all of the factors that contribute to that problem,” Bach said.
“We look forward to undertaking this work and providing our community and ourselves with much improved and actionable data,” said WSPD chief Rob Strange.
Strange promises that the community will continue to have a “seat at the table” in the future, because “this important data truly belongs to the people.”
The WSPD will be one of the first police departments in the nation to adopt the Commons model, in which law enforcement and the community they serve are “equal players in creating a dashboard designed to respond to everyone’s concerns. The dashboard, which can be viewed at https://measuresforjustice.org/commons, has been in the works for three years, Bach says.
The importance of collecting police data and the power of that data to improve policing and community safety was discussed in a Monday webinar hosted via Zoom. The webinar was part of a larger private panel discussion bringing together researchers, national reform leaders and community advocates.
Speakers included Sam Sinyangwe, the founder of Mapping Police Violence and The Police Scorecard.
“I want to take us back to 2014 when Mike Brown Jr was shot and killed by police in Ferguson. His death sparked a national movement demanding justice, accountability and order, but at that time we had very little data on the problem of police violence in this country,” Sinyangwe said.
“The feds can tell you how much rainfall there has been in rural Wisconsin for 100 years, but they can’t tell you how many people have been killed by police. And even today they don’t have a comprehensive database on the subject,” he continued.
Darrell Malone, founder of the National Police Data Coalition; Damon Woods, who leads both the Racial Equity Alliance and XPrize; and Channing Nesbitt, social impact program specialist for the Tableau Foundation. Nesbitt talked about the work he does to help share the stories of the people behind the data.
“These principles of community engagement, the use of publicly available data, and data storytelling that informs institutional knowledge and decision-making are all key elements that make data and data visualizations a transformative tool in the fight for racial equity,” he said.
Every aspect helps, Bach said. “The more we work with each other, the more we progress.”
She sees transparency and accountability in action in Yolo County. The group launched its first Commons with District Attorney Jeff Reisig and a community advisory board. The group has set a goal of seeing 10% of all crimes diverted to reduce the number of people in the system and make more use of restorative justice programs instead of jail or jail.
“A few weeks later, their office and ours were discussing a data point suggesting that far more cases involving blacks than whites had been referred by the police. Now, the data point itself was neither remarkable nor shocking, but the consequences of this kind of misalignment were disastrous. For starters, nationally, black defendants tend to come into the system with criminal records more often than white defendants. There are several factors behind this problem and one of them is definitely bias,” Bach said.
The fact that defendants with records in Yolo County were not eligible for diversion added to the problem.
“Suddenly you had a ton more black defendants than white defendants entering the dead-end system,” Bach noted. “Obviously there was a problem and quickly there was a solution. What if criminal history does not automatically prevent defendants from having their case diverted?
“What if decisions were made more thoughtfully on a case-by-case basis? The district attorney changed the policy, which was to increase hijackings by 15 to 20 percent, primarily affecting black defendants. We’ll find out in the coming months what the numbers really are, but this is an example of how transparency has made the prosecutor accountable because everyone has access to the same information.
Bach pointed to one clear outcome: a monthly town hall hosted by District Attorney Reisig where county residents can ask questions based on the data. Chief Strange was invited to a meeting to discuss data that showed his department was sending more cases involving black defendants than whites to the prosecutor’s office.
“As people peppered the leader with questions,” Bach recalled, “the data points stood there next to his face. A community member stepped in and asked, ‘What are you doing in terms of training? officers? What do you do for systemic issues? And Chief Strange had no answer,” she shared.
Measures for Justice had a meeting with Strange the next day, Bach said.
“At the end, we knew the West Sacramento Police Department was on board for their own commune. We now have a voluntary pilot site, two in fact for this year, and we are working on what policing measures these pilot sites will implement and continue to grow.