Advocates and members of the tech community have often butted heads with the New York City Police Department over their closed data practices. But it appears that newly appointed NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is committed to break down at least some of those barriers.
During a speech at a Citizens Crime Commission breakfast in Midtown on Friday morning, Bratton highlighted the need for data transparency. That perspective is a marked shift in policy from how the NYPD operated under former Commissioner Ray Kelly. During Kelly's tenure, the NYPD was opposed to an open data bill in the City Council and dragged its feet on implementing many of the changes requested in the law after it eventually passed in February 2012.
"There should be no secrets in the NYPD," Bratton said. "We are going to do more to open up the organization, to make it more inclusive, to make our information more readily available to the public, and to try and format it in a way that is more easily retrievable."
Bratton added, "That is our commitment to shared responsibility. If we want you to work with us, we have an obligation to let you know what we are doing, why, and the help we need to finish it."
In a Q&A with reporters after the breakfast, City & State asked the commissioner to elaborate on how he plans to make the department’s data more accessible. Bratton said that next week he will be appointing a new deputy commissioner for information technology. He did not disclose who that would be and the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information office said they would not release a name until the announcement.
"The responsibility of that office will be to meet some of the City Council's requests that information be more readily available and in different types of formats," Bratton said. He added that while there are many different ways to transmit data between the different systems, he wanted to see cooperation.
"To the best of our ability, we are going to try and make as much of our information available to the public, and in as many different formats as possible," Bratton said.
Many advocates, as well as City Council members, have pressed the NYPD to stop using PDFs in its crime data reporting because it is not a machine-readable format. When pressed if the new policies would include a move away from PDFs, Bratton was noncommittal.
"I am still a bit of a Luddite when it comes to all the different formats," Bratton said with a chuckle. "But in terms of the team we have at the NYPD, they are phenomenal and work with some of the top teams around the county at some of the various companies we interact with."
He added, "My sense is we will be in good shape to respond to most of the requests that come in."
That sentiment was good news to Councilman James Vacca. As the former chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, Vacca fought unsuccessfully to get the NYPD to change the way it releases crash data.
Vacca now chairs the Council’s Technology Committee and has high hopes to make the city's data more transparent and useable. Vacca said he received a phone call earlier this week from Commissioner Bratton, a call he said he was surprised to receive, but one that was very constructive.
He said Bratton told him he was open to working with the Council on opening up data, particularly crash data.
"I thought his attitude was a day and night difference from what we have experienced in the past," Vacca said by phone Friday. "I think now there is a new attitude that is more open and constructive."
Vacca said with the previous administration, Council members were forced into legislating for data transparency, a process he said takes months and often results in a compromised bill.
"I think it more desirable to work cooperatively with the executive branch, and in this case Commissioner Bratton," Vacca said. "I think we can get better and quicker results this way."
Vacca is already taking steps to work with the administration in their newfound commitment to transparency. He introduced a bill last week that would require the NYPD to make crime stats in NYCHA developments available through its website. The stats would come not only from the precincts, but the TSA units assigned to certain NYCHA developments.
In the past the NYPD vigorously fought legislation related to data. Should Vacca's bill receive a hearing, it may provide a window into the type of transparency the NYPD is hoping to move towards under Bratton.
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that a date had not been set for a hearing on Councilman James Vacca's NYPD crime stats bill, when it remains to be seen whether the bill will receive a hearing.