The power and promise of open data: A Freedom of Information Act request puts some numbers behind the charges of police discrimination.
I once heard it said that every successful Freedom of Information Act request is a failure of open government. In other words, every time activists, journalists, or other citizens are able to get data or other records through a FOIA request, that information should have already been available, somehow, somewhere on the Internet, without the hassle of a request process. The thinking is that FOIA is an antiquated system, designed for a time when the government did not have a great way to make the information it holds public. Now doing so is (relatively) easy, but the FOIA system persists, putting the government in an essentially passive role as a resource.
The results of such a request from VíveloHoy, a Spanish-language Chicago-based news site, show just how powerful government data can be. Recently, VíveloHoy submitted FOIA requests to the police departments of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois, looking for five years of arrest data broken down by race. Champaign and Urbana are two different municipalities that, straddled by the University of Illinois, function as one metro area. The request has now been fulfilled, and, VíveloHoy says, "We found major disparities in the number of arrests of black people in both communities."
The two towns are 16 percent black, according to the 2010 census, but, in each of the years the data covered, more than 40 percent of the arrests were of black people. The disparities were not equal across crimes, and one in particular stood out: Jaywalking. Yes, jaywalking.
VíveloHoy breaks down the numbers:
In Champaign from 2007 to 2011, 658, or 88 percent, of the 744 jaywalking arrests were of black people.
In Urbana, the percentage of black arrestees for the same crime was even higher during those same years.
From 2007 to 2011, 110, or 91 percent, of the people cited for jaywalking in Urbana were black.
VíveloHoy went to the site of many of the arrests, in search of an explanation. Was it possible that black people living there were jaywalking that much more than white people? Its reporters found that there may be a reason so many arrests took place in certain neighborhoods: no sidewalks, which pushes people into the street. In my mind this cannot possibly explain a discrepancy of this magnitude, but it does show that more than one form of discrimination may be manifested in these numbers.
In a more data-open world, police departments would keep these and other sorts of information on their website, as many government agencies are starting to do. But until then, there's VíveloHoy, which has kindly posted its research in an Excel file, free for all.