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Obama to Police: Less Call of Duty Weapons, More Call of Data

The White House is pushing police departments to share more information on officer behavior.

A police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets at demonstrators during an anti-capitalist protest in Seattle, Washington, on May 1, 2015. (Reuters/David Ryder)

President Obama is betting that Camden, New Jersey, is a model for how cities, communities, and law enforcement can better avoid the tragic outcomes of late in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore. He’s visiting Camden today to kick off a nationwide tour, during which administration officials will visit police departments to highlight examples of what the White House calls “21st Century Policing”—tactics that both reduce crime and build trust between cops and communities.

Camden was selected as a launchpad for the tour because its police department has logged a 50 percent drop in homicides since 2012. The city is also involved in a number of the White House’s signature initiatives on crime and poverty: the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge and Promise Zone initiatives, and the White House Police Data Initiative, which Obama is discussing at length today in New Jersey.

Under the data program, 21 police departments have elected to share information about police use of force, pedestrian and vehicle stops, officer-involved shootings, police behavior, and other data sets on law enforcement activity. The initiative is similar to one created recently by the Center for Policing Equity out of UCLA, which collects and analyzes data sets shared by roughly 20 police departments across the nation.

Here’s a map of the cities that have signed on to the White House’s data initiative:

Police departments participating in the White House Police Data Initiative

Some of the police initiatives that the White House is spotlighting include:  

  • A collaboration between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where police data will be shared and visualized “to provide a full picture of key policing activities, including stops, searches and use-of-force trends, information and demographics on neighborhoods patrolled, and more.”  
  • The Oakland Police Department has partnered with researchers at Stanford University to build applications that comb through body camera footage for specific instances of when police encounter civilians. Audio indexed from those encounters will be studied to determine why they went poorly or well.
  • In New Orleans, the police department will open its data to Operation Spark, a non-profit organization that teaches software development skills to city youth, for code trainings, hackathons, and other applications that will make the data easier to access and understand for the public.

One question that the White House hopes to find answers to is, How do police departments determine when officers are showing signs of potentially major problems? We often don’t find out until after a police officer has killed a civilian that she or he has a troubling record, as we found with some of the Baltimore cops involved in Freddie Gray’s death. In a White House blog post written by United States Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Domestic Policy Council deputy assistant, Roy L. Austin, Jr., they write:

While many police departments have systems in place, often called “early warning systems,” to identify officers who may be having challenges in their interactions with the public and link them with training and other assistance, there has been little to no research to determine which indicators are most closely linked to bad outcomes.

To develop those indicators, 21 police departments—including New Orleans, Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Camden—have signed on to share data on police behavior so that departments can intervene before officers go astray of their duties.

The other big announcement from Obama in Camden today is a new set of rules banning the sale of certain militarized weapons from the federal government to local police departments. These bans come as one of the recommendations from the President’s Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, which released a report today on reforming police practices.

Other items out of that report include:

  • A “controlled” list of armored vehicles, vehicles, riot gear, firearms and ammunition that law enforcement can acquire, but only under more rigorous regulations.
  • New uniform acquisition standards, requiring police departments to get the permission of mayors, city councils or county councils before accessing equipment from the controlled list, and with “a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the equipment and the appropriate law enforcement purpose that it will serve.”
  • New training standards put in place in order to receive the equipment, including trainings in community policing and constitutional compliance,  
  • Requirements for police departments to collect data, open to the public, whenever such equipment is involved in a “significant incident.”

Some of those standards are already in place in New Jersey, under a new law that Governor Chris Christie signed in March. Local police had also been acquiring heavy duty artillery through federal civil forfeiture laws that allowed them to keep money and assets seized from police stops and stings. The Washington Post reported in an investigative series last October how police departments around the nation used those seized assets to buy automatic weapons and other spoils for their squadrons. Former Attorney General Eric Holder curbed the program that allowed them to do that in January.

That directive from Holder only affected weapons police acquired from the federal government, though, as do the new directives from Obama today in Camden. Some police departments have other ways of raising funds to purchase these weapons, like from municipal fees and traffic fines. And the federal government is not the only supplier.

According to the 2013 Police Department Service Weapon Survey, police agencies obtain weapons in a variety of ways including as donations and from trade-in programs. For that survey, 53 of the largest police departments in the country participated. The most common source among them for firearms purchasing was national weapons distributors, with local retail outlets coming in second.

(Police Executive Research Forum)

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