Crime & Justice

Users want 'everything' from state data site — including restored public confidence

California Attorney General Kamala Harris delivers a keynote address during a Safer Internet Day event at Facebook on February 10, 2015 in Menlo Park, California.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris delivers a keynote address during a Safer Internet Day event at Facebook on February 10, 2015 in Menlo Park, California.
File photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The public wants more data about police shootings, crime rates and other criminal justice issues, according to nearly 300 requests made to the California Department of Justice through its OpenJustice website.

KPCC obtained the requests made to the state website, which launched last September in order to make state Department of Justice data available to the public for download.

Some 279 requests were made through the website between September 2015 launch and this July. More than 60 percent of requests, 168 of them, came the month the website launched.

The most common ask was for data on police shootings, with several requests seeking the race of the people shot and of the police officers who shot at them.

Department of Justice spokesperson Brenda Gonzalez told KPCC the agency finds the suggestions valuable.

"Our team evaluates them, and they help to give us a sense of what users are looking for on the site and in the criminal justice system," she said.

Through the requests and user testing, the agency realized that people also want "contextual data" on income and education levels, which may shed light on criminal justice data, Gonzalez said.

To provide some context, OpenJustice offers 'data dictionaries,' materials that offer definitionsand background information about the data made available. Such context is helpful for users, and often unavailable on government data portals.

In addition to police shootings, OpenJustice users requested data on crimes, public corruption, welfare, traffic, homelessness, foster care, student loans and individual people. One person just wanted more recent information.

Others requested changes to the graphics on the site, information on specific cities, prison records from the 1930s, images of sex offenders, and crimes committed by undocumented people.

The requests need not ask for a database actually maintained by the state.

A number of the requests seem to simply be people's names or phone numbers. One person sought data on the Zodiac Killer. Others raise concerns about individual police officers, district attorneys and doctors.

Two of the OpenJustice requests, perhaps from the same person, are heartbreaking in their directness. They beg the state for "necessary statistics to ensure/restore public confidence."

Another requestor hopes the state Department of Justice will set the bar high, asking for "everything possible - beyond what is imaginable."

OpenJustice's launch last summer, the website continued the trend of government agencies posting some public data online on sites that are frequently called "portals".

Attorney General Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck appeared at a joint news conference to announce the data-sharing effort. Harris issued a challenge to Californians to dig into the information, and Beck acknowledged racial disparities in law enforcement data, adding that "trust is based on data."

A look at OpenJustice at launch found its initial datasets featured far less detail than the state keeps on deaths in custody and assaults against police. While that data — which the state tracks and would be legally obligated to provide in response to a records request — is still missing, other new datasets have been added to the site.