Let’s learn from the failures of The Clery Act

As our nation grapples with police violence and misconduct, transparency by law enforcement is critical now more than ever before. Failure to share data leads to mistrust, poor community relations and low accountability. In addition to a reduction to funding, new training and changes in law enforcement policies and procedures, production of a standard daily police blotter is another option that would improve transparency, allowing the public to better understand the crime in their community and ways police are responding.

Recently, Congress passed the COVID–19 Hate Crimes Act, which requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish online hate crime reporting processes, collect data disaggregated by protected characteristics (e.g., race or national origin), and expand education campaigns. A second bill being considered, The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act , requires agencies to create a national registry—the National Police Misconduct Registry—to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct. It also establishes new reporting requirements, including the use of force, officer misconduct, and routine policing practices (e.g., stops and searches).

Both of these laws require the collection and sharing of new and different datasets, which causes concern with regard to the actual implementation and enforcement of these laws.

For more than 100 years, newspapers have been producing some form of a “police blotter” in communities around the country. Historically, this is the number two most-read item after the leading story. And currently, crime data rises to the top as a most-used dataset on police and city open data portals. People want to know what is happening in the communities in which they live and work.

Unfortunately, the internet has decimated the newspaper industry, with the number of local newspapers decreasing almost every year for the last 15 years. With the disappearance of local news outlets, is the disappearance of police activity and crime data, slowly reducing transparency and accountability.

Despite advances in technology, police departments across the country are removing their open data, replacing it with new closed systems that prevent the press and citizens from sharing information. Additionally, some police agencies have implemented proprietary systems that allow vendors to control access to public information and limit sharing.

Other challenges include laws that were created to improve the public’s access to data prior to the prevalence of the internet. In 1986, Congress passed the Jeanne Clery Act - named after Jeanne Clery who was raped and murdered in her first year at Lehigh University. Jeanne’s parents sued the university for not making crime information public and won a settlement. They used those funds to help create and pass the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires universities that receive federal funding to state their procedures related to crime prevention, provide a pamphlet each year with a report, and also make available a crime log.

The law states:
“(5) The institution must make the crime log for the most recent 60-day period open to public inspection during normal business hours. The institution must make any portion of the log older than 60 days available within two business days of a request for public inspection”
The Clery Act was intended to help inform parents and students about crimes at universities so they could make better decisions about where their child should go for an education and to optimize campus safety. Unfortunately, the law was passed before the advent of the internet. And was written when newspapers flourished and information was difficult to acquire. The crime log language in the law mentions business hours because prior to 24/7 access provided by the internet, access for most services was restricted to business hours.

Visitors to Carnegie Mellon or Stanford University area campus police websites will not find a crime log. The log is only available as a paper log for walk-ins during business hours. Despite the demand and expectation of digital data available at any time through the internet, the law has not been modernized, and two of the world’s most sophisticated and technical universities still only provide their crime log in person on paper.

As Congress debates new laws, it is our hope that we can learn from the Clery Act to consider the future and how technology and policing might change. These two new laws are going to require collection and surfacing of some datasets that may not even be in existence at police agencies yet. However, we need to start with a federal law that requires the most basic of datasets - a daily report of all police activity from the previous day's events and 911 call report - and a standard by which all law enforcement agencies across the country must follow. And these reports need to be accessible without paywalls and without geographic/time limitations in a machine-readable format.

The majority of police agencies and 911 systems use some type of database that records information so reports can be produced. We believe that 80% of police agencies could develop the ability to produce a public report within six months with the databases and infrastructure already in place. The data is already available and is collected at the expense of billions of dollars funded by taxpayers. Creating a report listing the previous day's activities should cost pennies. The format of the output can be simplified and standardized. For example, in 2019, a major vendor took down an open access portal and replaced it with a privatized vendor-controlled website making the data nearly impossible for the press and the public to access.

There should be no expectation of perfection (crime data is messy, 911 calls are messy) which typically leads to complications of implementation. The information available in these datasets is imperative to the accountability and transparency of police departments and the beginning of a trusted police-community relationship. Not making the data available does more harm than good. Improving the collection and distribution capacity of data not only will increase operational efficiencies, it would increase sharing between agencies, making it easier to spot trends related to criminals moving about the country, and making residents more aware and better prepared.

We believe that police transparency through some type of open data portal for the public and the press is synonymous with police professionalism. We need to leverage the internet and technology advances to improve the public’s access to data that informs without breaching privacy rights. Police reform must begin with transparency.
Carnegie Mellon University does not publish a daily crime log to their website, making it nearly impossible to know about crime on campus unless you are fortunate enough to be able to walk into the campus police department during normal business hours to view the printed out paper crime log.


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