By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The West Sacramento Police Department is one of the first in the country to implement a new set of national police measures developed with input from community leaders and police experts.
Announced by the non-profit, Measures for Justice, the standardized measures will track the department’s performance and practice and will be made available for all to see through the organization’s online data transparency portal called Commons.
“The only way our criminal justice system can improve is by monitoring its performance, isolating what works and what doesn’t, and developing interventions based on fact. For all this work, data is critical,” says Measures for Justice CEO Amy Bach.
The framework for the police measures were created in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE). Measures For Justice convened a diverse group of community leaders, scholars and advocates to focus on varied aspects of policing, including trust in the department and perceptions of legitimacy; use of force; least harm practices; accountability; officer wellness and safety; fiscal needs and responsibility; as well as recruitment and training.
“These measures will all be based on the premise that you cannot possibly solve one problem in policing without measuring and understanding all the factors that are contributing to that problem,” Bach said.
“We are eager to take on this work and to provide our community and ourselves much improved and actionable data,” said WSPD Chief Rob Strange.
Strange promises that the community will continue to have a “seat at the table” moving forward, as “this important data truly belongs to the people.”
WSPD will be one of the first police departments in the country to adopt the Commons Model, in which law enforcement and the community they serve are “equal players in the creation of a dashboard designed to meet everyone’s concerns.” The dashboard, which can be viewed at https://measuresforjustice.org/commons, is three years in the making, says Bach.
The importance of collecting police data and the power that data has to improve policing and community safety was discussed during a Monday webinar held via Zoom. The webinar was part of a larger private roundtable featuring 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 nationwide movement demanding justice, accountability and policing, but at that time, we had very little data on the problem of police violence in this country,” Sinyangwe said.
“The federal government can tell you how much rainfall there was in rural Wisconsin going back 100 years, but they couldn’t tell you how many people were killed by the police. And even today, they don’t have a comprehensive database on the subject,” he continued.
Also weighing in were Darrell Malone, founder of the National Police Data Coalition; Damon Woods, who directs both the Racial Equity Alliance and XPrize; and Channing Nesbitt, Social Impact Program Specialist for the Tableau Foundation. Nesbitt spoke 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 accessible data and data storytelling that informs institutional knowledge and decision making are all key components 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 do the work with each other, the more progress we make.”
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 set the goal of seeing 10% of all felonies diverted to reduce the number of people in the system and to make more use of restorative justice programs instead of jail or prison.
“A few weeks later, their office and ours were discussing a data point that suggested that many more cases involving Black people than White were sent over from the police. Now the data point itself was not remarkable or shocking, but the consequences of this kind of misalignment were dire. For starters, nationwide, Black defendants tend to come to the system with a prior record more often than White defendants. There are multiple factors behind this problem and certainly one of them is bias,” Bach said.
Adding to the issue was the fact that defendants with records in Yolo County were not eligible for diversion.
“Suddenly you had a ton more Black defendants than White defendants entering the system with no way out,” Bach noted. “Clearly, there was a problem and quickly there was a solution. What happens if criminal history did not automatically disqualify defendants from having their cases diverted?
“What if decisions were made more thoughtfully on a case by case basis? The district attorney changed the policy, which was projected to increase diversions by 15 to 20%, mostly affecting Black defendants. We’ll find out in the coming months, what the numbers really are, but this is an example of how transparency made the prosecutor accountable because everyone has access to the same information.”
Bach pointed to a clear result: a monthly town hall meeting 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 sending more cases involving Black defendants than Whites to the DA’s office.
“As people peppered the chief with questions,” Bach recalled, “the data points stood up there beside his face. A community member chimed in and asked, ‘What are you doing in terms of officer training? What are you doing about systemic issues?’ And Chief Strange had no answer,” she shared.
Measures For Justice had a meeting with Strange the next day, Bach said.
“By the end of it, we knew the West Sacramento Police Department was on board for a Commons of their own. Now we have a willing pilot site, two actually for this year, and what we’re working on are the police measures these pilot sites will implement and continue to grow.”