New study looks at the transparency of police departments

Voice of San Diego’s Liam Dillon got an early draft of an interesting forthcoming study on transparency at police departments across the country.

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. . . .

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.

Chanin also found that police agencies overseen by civilian review boards tend to be more transparent:

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.

Transparency is a worthy goal for its own sake. But as both Dillon and Chanin point out, it’s only one component of good governance and good policing. But it’s the component that enables us to assess and measure all the others.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | May 9