This post has been updated.
Transparency is one of those buzzwords that politicians and government agencies like to say they support, but its definition can be hard to pin down.
San Diego State University professor Joshua Chanin has tried to find a way to measure transparency in police departments across the country. The results aren’t pretty, including locally.
“Police departments are not transparent,” Chanin said. “San Diego is in good company in that respect.”
Chanin examined the websites of more than 300 city and county police departments to see whether they provided information about contacting the department, filing complaints, using force and any other insight into how the departments operate. He said websites aren’t the only measure of transparency, but they’re the primary way departments communicate with the public. Chanin hasn’t published his findings but previewed the data with Voice of San Diego.
The chart below shows the overall transparency scores. Departments are measured on a 41-point scale and the chart indicates how many departments received a certain score. I put the score of our lowest local department, Temecula, in yellow and our highest, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, in green. The San Diego Police Department scored a 6. Its score is in red.
The horizontal axis shows the transparency score and the vertical shows the number of departments receiving that score.
Lots of departments don’t measure up well. But some are leaps ahead of others. The highest ranking department is Brookline, Mass., a small, tony Boston suburb. Big cities are near the top, too. Austin and Los Angeles’ police departments rank second and third. SDPD doesn’t fare too great even when you isolate rankings of departments in the nation’s 10 largest cities.
Chanin found nearly every department scored a point for publishing its contact information on its website. But what about more detailed data and policies, such as traffic stop data by race, officer discipline information and instructions for filing public records requests? Chanin grouped those variables into a category he called accountability, which ranked departments on a 25-point scale.
Again, Temecula (yellow) scored the lowest of local departments and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (green) scored the highest. SDPD’s score is in red. Austin, Pittsburgh and Brookline score the highest overall on accountability. Like above, the horizontal axis shows the transparency score and the vertical shows the number of departments receiving that score.
Chanin did this research in part to see how different kinds of outside oversight might affect police departmental transparency. So far, he’s found that departments with civilian review boards affiliated with a national nonprofit are more likely to have greater transparency scores. These boards examine various factors of police operations, especially how departments handle complaints. The civilian oversight agencies that belong to the nonprofit National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement exist because of government mandates.
Here’s how departments with and without those boards compare, with SDPD’s score included for reference.
Based on these numbers, you might think SDPD doesn’t have a civilian oversight board. It does. In fact, the board’s vice chairman said at a recent panel he’s been pushing for the department to put more of its policies online.
Chanin said membership in the national civilian oversight organization means a department tends to value transparency. But there’s a disconnect here.
“San Diego has invested in this oversight mechanism yet not found other ways to push the department to disclose information,” he said.
SDPD spokesman Kevin Mayer said the department plans to meet with Chanin to discuss his findings.
“We welcome input from any person who may have an idea on how we can better reach the public with information,” Mayer said.
What All This Means
It would be easy to translate these results to say departments that score high are “good” and those that score low are “bad.” But it’s not that simple. Police departments in Seattle and Pittsburgh, for instance, score high in transparency. Both have had recent high-profile scandals that resulted in formal federal oversight. It could be that reforms required by those monitors made the departments publish more information on their websites, Chanin said.
“In my view, transparency correlates with a good police department,” Chanin said.
Since this research is new and we only got into a bit of it here, I’ve asked Chanin to monitor the comments section of this post to respond to questions. He graciously agreed. So have at it.