New State Website Offers Peek at “Treasure Trove” of Crime Data

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Somebody in Sacramento has been boning up on data visualization.

California government often does not fare well in national comparisons of data transparency, sometimes with a nod to Governor Brown’s shutdown of the state’s 2-year-old “Reporting Transparency in Government” website in November 2011.

But on Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a candidate for Democrat  Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in 2016, opened a window into the state’s vast storehouse of crime data when she unveiled the online portal OpenJustice. “The California Department of Justice sits on a trove of data, a treasure trove of data,” she said at a press conference.

The site has two parts. Dashboard is a data visualization tool, full of nifty charts and graphs built around pre-selected data sets. The Open Data Portal allows access to downloadable raw data dating back 30 years.

The attorney general’s press release described the open data initiative as “unprecedented” and Jim Bueermann, who heads the nonprofit Police Foundation, concurred. He told the Associated Press California was the first state to make such data easily available to the public.

But the datasets are limited and the site only displays a small portion of the state’s information. The website asks visitors to suggest new data sets.

The Dashboard is divided into three categories: Arrest Rates, Death in Custody and Law Enforcement Officers Killed or Assaulted. Each category is further subdivided by subject.

Arrest Rates is divided into Overview, Adult, Juvenile and Bookings.

Adult Arrests has five charts on felony arrests across time (1980-2013) and by race/ethnicity and sex. Juvenile Arrests adds a couple of charts but covers the same territory. Bookings has seven charts of data between 2010 and 2014, broken out by age, sex and race/ethnicity. Overview has nine charts with different views of the subjects in the other three categories.

The Death in Custody visualizations are top notch, inspiring U.S. Representative Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who appeared at a news conference with Harris and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, to highlight what she considered an unexpected piece of data. Sixty-one percent of the 7,000 prisoners who died in custody between 2005 and 2014 passed away from natural causes; they weren’t beaten to death by police.

But the Los Angeles Times questioned the validity of the underlying data, citing an Orange County Register report last year that 20% of fatal shootings by Southern California law enforcement weren’t counted. Harris told the paper she vouched for the data’s accuracy.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Data Shows Racial Disparity in Arrests, Deaths (by Tami Abdollah and Amanda Lee Myers, Associated Press)

Public Can Now See California Data on Arrests and Deaths in Police Custody (by Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times)

California's New Website Shows Numbers of People Killed by Police, and Their Race (by Matt Novak, Gizmodo)

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Launches First of-Its-Kind Criminal Justice Open Data Initiative (California Department of Justice)

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