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F. Kaid Benfield: How to Create Healthy Environments for People

“Just as all parts of an ecosystem must be healthy if the system is going to work,” an environment for people — a “people habitat” — must have “homes, shops, businesses, and the environment that fit in a harmonious way,” said urban thinker and author F. Kaid Benfield at the National Building Museum in Washington, […] […]

Sunshine and shadows: Statehouses tackle open records laws in 2015

The political storm passes
Virginia’s statehouse weathers a storm. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)  

Transparency advocates, it’s a great time to check in on your state legislature! The 2016 state legislative sessions have already witnessed a host of important actions, with legislators across the country considering measures to increase and decrease governmental transparency. Two months into the new year, one state Virginia has already concluded its work for 2015, while several others are rounding into their final month of work. Here’s a roundup of some of the bills we’re watching.

Open Meetings and Public Records

A bipartisan effort to substantially limit public access to lawmakers’ meetings in Arizona has stalled for now. SB 1435 aimed to redefine “public meeting” to include only meetings where lawmakers at any level of government took a vote, potentially eliminating all deliberative sessions from the public eye. As local media pointed out, this “would have allowed meetings of the legislature, county supervisors, school boards and city councils to be conducted behind closed doors unless a vote was being held.” This was the most sweeping reduction of public meeting access to be proposed so far this legislative session, so public access advocates were heartened to see it not move forward. Another potential weakening of public meetings — Wyoming’s HB 232, a bill to allow public agencies to cast votes during closed executive sessions — also did not move forward after it failed to surmount an early procedural hurdle. And Tennessee, unfortunately, is continuing to move towards a change to its public records law that would create new fees for people who want to inspect public records. Submitted at the behest of school boards who feel burdened by excessive public interest, HB 315 would nonetheless apply to all government records and reduce public access.

Positive Developments

Meanwhile, in many states we are seeing a number of positive movements to increase sunlight on state lawmaking.

Trends in Public Access Restriction: Information about Executions

Following the botched executions of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Dennis McGuire in Ohio — and in the midst of increased federal attention to the methods of state execution — several legislatures have turned their attention to public access to information about executions. For the most part, these bills have sought to limit public access to information.

  • Ohio: Ohio’s response to the failure of its execution method was to increase secrecy about it. At the end of 2014, Ohio passed HB 663, which makes private any information relating to the people and drugs involved in state executions. A legal challenge to the constitutionality of this new provision has just failed.
  • Mississippi: A similar bill (HB 1305) was just rejected in Mississippi’s Senate after passing the state House.
  • Virginia ultimately rejected a bill, SB 1393, that would make execution drug information private and exclude it from coverage from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
  • Texas(HB 1587): Meanwhile, in Texas Rep. Terry Canales has just introduced a bill to proactively disclose information about execution pharmaceuticals in advance of any execution.

Transparency in Ethics, Lobbying and Campaign Finance

Ethics Reforms

Some positive ethics reforms are up for a vote — and have been achieved in one case already: Virginia managed to pass a significant ethics revision by the end of its short legislative session, reducing the limit on the value of gifts that legislators could accept to $100.

  • New Mexico is considering a more substantial ethics overhaul. A suite of bills would create a state ethics commission (HB 115 — New Mexico is currently one of just seven states that has no ethics commission), create clearer disclosures for lobbying (HB 155), and increase disclosure of “independent expenditures” in campaigns (HB 278 and SB 384.)
  • Indiana (HB 1002): Ethics reform is also being attempted in Indiana, where HB 1002 would create additional disclosure requirements for lawmakers, including by requiring lawmakers to list family members who are state lobbyists and to strengthen the state’s revolving door law.
  • Missouri (HB 228; SB 11): Missouri is also looking to improve their ethics law under two bills, one which limits the legislative revolving door by requiring a one-year cooling off period before legislators become lobbyists (HB 228) and the other which creates a two-year cooling off period for Assembly members, with additional restrictions (SB 11).

Dark Money

Campaign finance reform aimed at improving disclosure for “dark money” is on the agenda in a couple of additional states.

  • Hawaii (SB 1344): The legislature here is looking at SB 1344, a bill to increase transparency for SuperPACs.
  • Montana (SB 289): In Montana, the legislature seems poised to pass SB 289 which will also require additional transparency. (A further group of Montana campaign finance bills that would have mandated greater disclosure has already been tabled.)

Budget Cutbacks

As part of the legislative process — but sometimes harder to observe — we’ve unfortunately seen, state budget committees working against state ethics enforcement in several states, limiting the state’s ability to ensure that public bodies and officers comply with the state’s own laws.

    State bills (including budget bills) are so consequential, but it can be tough to keep an eye on them, especially during this era of reduced statehouse press corps. You can visit OpenStates to learn more about your state’s lawmaking, and set up alerts for bills or topics you care about using our Scout tool for state bills.


    DNC paid $4.5 million for events at White House

    The White House in springtime.

    Democratic operatives have made frequent use of the White House grounds, according to expenditure reports. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

    Since 2011, the Democratic National Committee has made 56 payments totaling more than $4.5 million to the U.S. Treasury, most of which paid for catering at “Reservation #1,” the National Park Service’s terminology for the White House grounds.

    On the campaign trail in 2007, Barack Obama decried the Bush administration for over-politicizing his office telling a crowd in Manchester, N.H. that “the days of using the White House as another arm of the Republican National Committee are over.” But a new Sunlight analysis of campaign finance records from the Democratic National Committee finds party operatives have made frequent use of the White House during Obama’s tenure.

    Each of the transactions were earmarked to Dennis Freemyer, the former Deputy Director of the Executive Residence and Deputy Chief Usher at the White House, and addressed to a National Parks Service office in Riverdale, Md. The White House grounds are technically part of the Parks Service.

    The DNC did not return multiple calls and e-mails from Sunlight inquiring about the payments, but the outlays appear to have gone towards social gatherings at the White House like the annual Christmas party, which is traditionally paid for by the party in office.

    The biggest bashes apparently occur during the holiday season, in fact. Data from the Federal Election Commission show large spikes in DNC payments to the Treasury each year in October, November or December, with payments ranging from $500,000 to just under $1 million.

    Sunlight also found numerous other catering payments, ranging from $20,000 to $60,000, that did not take place in the last three months of the calendar year.

    You can see a visualization of those disbursements below, or see the underlying data here.

    Chart showing that year after year, payments from the DNC to the Treasury spike at half a million dollars or more in November and December, while they remain much lower in other months.

    White House visitor logs released by the Obama administration show thousands of individuals set foot on White House grounds for December holiday parties. Linking the other payments to specific events, however, is more difficult.

    Federal law requires that political events at the first residence be paid for in advance and a search through the visitor logs finds only four events during that time period that were marked as partisan gatherings. Only one of those occurred in 2014: a June 6 reception for the DNC Executive Committee hosted by Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife. But, as the FEC data indicates, there have been many more events than that.

    A White House spokesperson would not comment on specific questions about holding partisan events on White House grounds or visits of donors’ and DNC officials. A review of some of the thousands of names of visitors finds many individuals who have contributed financially to the DNC and the Obama campaign interspersed with other attendees at large events in the executive mansion.

    White House visitor logs include an enormous numbers of events, including one-on-one meetings and receptions for hundreds of invited guests. On any given day, there are multiple events, the vast majority of which are official business, but which sometimes include among attendees DNC officials, donors and bundlers.

    For example, on May 1 of last year, the visitor logs show that among the hundreds of people attending events were Stephen Bittel, a Miami real estate developer and Democratic bundler who formerly served as the vice-chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Leslie Saiontz, chair of Teach for America and a Democratic donor who hosted a fundraiser for Obama in 2013. The same event included representatives from the National Education Association, a big political supporter of Democrats, operators of magnet schools and Frank Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s brother and a former head of a for-profit Florida charter school system.

    On the next day, the President met with Shekar Narasimhan, a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), along with Democratic Reps. Judy Chu, and Mike Honda, both of California, and several other Asian American civic and religious leaders. Narasimhan, a former chair of the DNC’s Indo-American council, has donated more than $350,000 to Democratic candidates since 1999. A White House press release indicates the president met with AAPI leaders to discuss immigration reform.

    The visitor logs can’t be used to determine whether the events these individuals — or those attended by thousands of others on other days — were partisan affairs paid for by the DNC or, more likely, nonpolitical events to which the White House invited some donors, bundlers and DNC officials.

    The Hatch Act precludes most public officials from engaging in partisan activity in federal buildings, though certain executive branch officials may engage in it while on the job, so long as they do not use taxpayer funds to do so and do not solicit political contributions. The president and vice president are not covered by the act.

    Occupying the White House has long given presidents a powerful tool for raising money — including Bill Clinton’s political operation, which invited donors to have sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom.

    A Sunlight review of FEC reports from the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2006 finds that the RNC paid the U.S. Treasury a little under $3.6 million for catering, decorations and meetings costs over that time. As with the DNC, the largest expenditures took place around the holidays, but also had some large catering bills in February, March and May over the years. (The RNC data is available here.)

    The Bush White House did not stop there in making use of the White House for political purposes. A 2011 report from the independent Office of Special Counsel found that its Office of Political Activity had acted as a de facto “political boiler-room,” and that “OPA employees routinely worked with the RNC to strategize about how best to utilize administration assets to help targeted candidates” in the 2006 mid-term elections.

    The Obama administration decommissioned the OPA in 2011, days before the OSC report was released, but later established a similar office, the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, in January 2014. And big contributors to Obama’s campaigns have had access to the White House all along, as the bulk data on White House visits, released in response to a lawsuit filed by a pair of Washington good government groups, have shown.

    A 2009 investigation by the Washington Times used the visitor logs to show frequent White House visits by major Democratic donors and DNC documents that appeared to offer access to senior administration officials in exchange for donors’ maximum campaign contributions.

    More recent reports by the Associated Press, the New York Times, Sunlight and other outlets have noted that top tier campaign and super PAC donors have made frequent appearances at the executive mansion and its surrounding offices.

    In 2009, in response to questions raised by the Washington Times reporting on White House access afforded to donors, then-White House Press Secretary told reporters that “contributing doesn’t guarantee a trip to the White House, nor does it preclude it.”

    Full disclosure: The author formerly interned at the Democratic National Committee for four months in 2012. As part of the application, the author submitted an essay, which the DNC awarded with a $1,000 stipend.


    NY-GEO’s 2015 annual conference in Saratoga Springs

    New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

    Dear Climate Smart Community Leader:


    Geothermal Heat Pumps (GHPs) are the cleanest and most efficient way to heat and cool buildings. They are becoming increasingly important as we recognize the need to reduce fossil fuel use in the face of climate change and volatile price swings.

    We invite you NY-GEO’s 2015 annual conference in Saratoga Springs, just North of Albany, March 17th and 18th. See http://ny-geo.org/pages/geopalooza. And please spread the word to any engineers, architects, builders, energy activists developers, and contractors you may know.

    Net-zero building will be an important focus of the conference. Net-zero happens when a property generates all the energy it uses. GHPs, when combined with renewable electricity such as solar PV, are the best way to get to net-zero in New York’s climate, and net-zero is coming on strong in our state

    In addition to great speakers and workshops, the conference will feature a Top Job Competition, where 7 contractors will compete for the “2014 Top Geothermal Job” title.

    Another highlight is the location – Skidmore College plans to be 50% geothermal by 2020 and we’ve got some great “hands on” tours planned for you to see geothermal […]

    Contemporary Flower Art

    Flowers, one of nature’s most appealing experiences, continue to be a source of inspiration for artists. Their form and color are compelling. And then, there is their delicate, ephemeral nature. Their quality make them unique material for photography, painting, and even sculpture. Today, contemporary photographers and artists are highlighting the seasonal lures of plants in […] […]

    Five questions about Hillary Clinton’s secret email

    Hillary Clinton stands alone on stage with a microphone

    Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email while serving as secretary of state raises serious questions about transparency and accountability.

    Last night, the New York Times published a story explaining that Hillary Clinton exclusively used personal email during her four-year tenure as secretary of state.

    Federal law governs how official records, including email, are managed, to ensure that public records are preserved, and to help ensure that our Freedom of Information and other accountability laws reach official communications.

    While it’s likely very early in what will undoubtedly spawn deeper reporting, the story raises some important questions:

    Why would she do this?

    Even as federal electronic record keeping is widely considered abysmal, there is shock at what Secretary Clinton did because the most likely explanation of her intent seems clear — she created a system designed to avoid accountability, potentially in violation of the law.

    There have been some significant email accountability stories in recent years, from Sarah Palin to the Bush White House, Lois Lerner to Andrew Cuomo. This story is likely bigger for a number of reasons — Secretary Clinton apparently never used official email, she did it for four years, she did it as secretary of state and she created the email server just before becoming secretary of state. As both the Washington Post and Vox point out, this clarifies her intent — she was very likely evading accountability for to avoid professional and political risk.

    What was the security risk?

    At the same time as the US was involved in expansive efforts to undermine the technology that everyone relies on for secure communications (for example, undermining encryption standards, and forcing telecommunications companies to give the government access to private information) one of its most senior leaders was relying on a private email server for her communications.

    The secretary of state is clearly subject to foreign surveillance, and given what we now know about the reach of government into all aspects of private technology, one has to wonder whether her communications were secure.

    Did the White House know?

    Is there any way that White House officials wouldn’t have noticed that Secretary Clinton’s emails were being sent from clintonemail.com? Did they never correspond via email, did President Obama turn a blind eye?

    Another stunning part of this story — didn’t everyone that emailed with Clinton see her private email address? Was this an open secret in Washington among people close to the secretary of state? Did anyone try to blow the whistle, go to the press (before now), talk to Congress or the inspectors general?

    What other damage has been done?

    One reason that public officials are expected to use official email addresses is that it makes their correspondence subject to basic accountability requirements. How many FOIA requests were submitted for which responsive records existed, but were simply inaccessible because Clinton kept her emails in her own private system? Were there any other investigations or inquiries that were stymied because she decided her information should be held above the law?

    As far as our shared expectation for the rule of law to apply equally to everyone, this story may do some damage, but it is also an opportunity. The profile and scale of this revelation may be an opportunity to create the enforcement authority that our records management laws need. Without such a response, though, and robust investigation into what happened, this revelation may only help usher in a gilded age of government accountability — where the most powerful people are able to put their careers above the law, and behind the curtain — even while they enforce a different standard on everyone else.

    How widespread is it?

    Given the variety of similar stories from other senior officials, this problem is probably very widespread. Hopefully there are some easy ways to determine whether senior officials are using their official email accounts at all. This wouldn’t guarantee that they don’t use other methods when they want to evade accountability, but at least it would show some basic deference to the law.

    We’ve clearly got a long, long way to go to ensure federal records are managed properly. Hopefully this story provides a useful starting point for some of that work.

    There’s clearly a lot of this story that we have yet to learn in the coming days, but how this situation is handled will go a long way in determining how our government handles its records, and whether our accountability laws apply evenly to everyone.


    Apply Now: ASLA Summer Internship

    The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time summer communications intern. The intern will research and update ASLA’s sustainable design resource guides, produce new content the web site Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, and write weekly posts on landscape architecture and related topics for The Dirt blog. Responsibilities: The intern will be expected […] […]

    After Sunlight FOIA, comprehensive data indexes arrive on Data.gov

    Over a year ago, in December of 2013, The Sunlight Foundation started down a path in search of agencies’ internal indexes of their data holdings, also known as “enterprise data inventories.” The FOIA we issued was issued in concert with continued advocacy efforts aimed to encourage faithful development of these inventories as well as their public release. Both are critical elements of good data practices, which may be why one of the most data-forward agencies, the Department of Transportation was the only agency to proactively release its index before our FOIA request was resolved.

    It’s been a long road, but at the beginning of February we learned that the Office of Management and Budget had decided to comply. This marked a high point in a years long process for the Sunlight Foundation.

    We hope that OMB and the agencies decide to continue releasing these indexes publicly as they develop, which, if done soon, would make the United States the first government to proactively release such indexes.

    This represents an important first in government open data efforts, rooted in the principle that the public, and Congress, needs more than access to the data the government deigns to publish — it needs to know what information the government knows it knows, what information the government isn’t releasing, and to what extent the government is prioritizing assessment of its data assets and publishing them.

    Data Primer

    For those that want to dive into the data – something we enthusiastically encourage – we wanted to provide a very brief primer. First, these files (so far) are showing up in the JSON format, which is geared towards computer programmers – they will open in your browser like any text file, but the code may well be disorienting for those not used to the format. Some of us use a tool called JSON Formatter, which should help break it all up so that it’s more understandable. Similar tools should be available, no matter your browser of choice.

    The second tool we use is a quick web application where you can copy and paste the JSON files, which in turn will create a spreadsheet that you can download (a CSV file, specifically, which opens perfectly in, for instance, Microsoft Excel). Note, however, that because this tool operates within your browser, it won’t work with particularly large JSONs (like the Environmental Protection Agency’s). On the other side, you’ll be able to explore this information like any data in a spreadsheet.

    What we’re seeing so far

    Even a brief look at the new information revealed via this new release allowed us to identify several datasets that are currently not public but could be of great value to journalists, researchers and interested citizens. The best place to start a search for the EDIs is on Data.gov.

    As of this morning, we’ve seen the following EDIs: National Science Foundation, National Archives and Records Administration, Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Personnel Management, Housing and Urban Development, the Department Of Transportation, Department of Labor, Department of Education, Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration. This leaves at least 14 other agencies left to comply. We expect many to do so early this week.

    Representatives of the Office of Management and Budget promised to share links to every agency EDI once they were all posted. We will update this post with that list as soon as we have it. Additionally, these are designed to be updated at least quarterly, meaning each new update should reveal new data.

    We have access to some 40,000-foot overviews, thanks to OMB’s own tracking of agency progress. There are 24 agencies that must comply with this (a full list here: http://labs.data.gov/dashboard/offices/2015-02-28). But the 40,000-foot view is only so helpful. For instance, the NARA inventory only has 19 “non-public” datasets (which appears to be the extent to which this is larger than the agency’s public data listing). However, agencies are ideally already publishing the most data they can, which would be reflected by a smaller difference between the public data listings and the enterprise data inventories. With that said, an agency prioritizing the cataloging of data sets may have a large value here despite also being committed and faithful to opening up their data. Accordingly, there isn’t a simple binary indicator for “good” or “bad” compliance. One example reveals how unwise it would be to jump to either conclusion: the Office of Personnel Management has 624 datasets in their data inventory. 53 are “restricted public” and 30 are “non-public.” However, Data.gov currently shows only 178 datasets (including OPM’s EDI).

    We also want to take a moment to congratulate the National Archives and Records Administration, which is not required to comply with the open data executive order (or, accordingly, the requirement to produce enterprise data inventories), for jumping into the fray. We hope to see every agency follow this path, and they should be applauded for this commitment to transparency.

    The beasts themselves

    In the current, limited view, Sunlight has already identified indicators of varying levels of success in indexing government information, some datasets that appear to be wisely withheld and datasets that could be of significant public value if released.

    One indicator we’ve found within the lists of unpublished data are items that reflect the extraordinary complexity of government. Seeing that agencies are cataloging, for instance, the software that controls security clearances, is a good indication that some agencies have properly received the EDI mandate, which is to ensure the federal government finally understands, to the greatest extent practicable, what information it possesses. If we didn’t see such things, it would be a worrying sign that the cataloging process isn’t working, and it would rob the public of a window into the complexity of agency operations, even if the datasets themselves never make it into the public’s hands. A counterexample is in example 8 below.

    Some items seem to be wisely unpublished — for instance, a dataset titled “Accident Injuries PII” (PII refers to Personally Identifiable Information). If ever published, and if it contains PII, such data must be appropriately scrubbed of sensitive, personal information.

    And then there’s the good stuff (that we’ve seen so far). Instead of listing every example of data we think is intriguing, here are a few choice items (the links go to the JSON files — the inventories themselves — and may be a bit of a heavy lift for some computers):

          1. The Department of Labor; has a dataset of hazardous conditions complaints provided by the mining industry. It is currently not public, but the EDI does not explain why. This appears to be an important dataset that could feasibly be unearthed through FOIA and combined with other relevant safety data to inform the work of journalists, watchdogs and, perhaps most critically, employees working in those conditions.
          2. The Department of Transportation, which has shown consistent leadership with their open data efforts and released their EDI proactively, has a number of potentially useful non-public datasets. One that jumps out immediately contains information on motor carrier crashes, or accidents involving large trucks and buses. It is reasonably withheld because it includes PII, but there is likely some significant utility that could be found in a redacted or aggregate version.
          3. The Office of Personnel Management; has a dataset titled “Congressional and Legislative Affairs (CLA) Tracking,” which, based on the description, appears to be both a tracking system and a database — presumably of OPM’s Congressional outreach.
          4. Housing and Urban Development includes a non-public dataset simply titled “Operating Plan,” which is described as “The written explanation of how HUD’s plans to run the IT business piece of the agency. The operating plan include includes [sic] funding by Investment with specific details that make up the investment.”
          5. One non-public dataset listed by the Environmental Protection Agency is the “National Register of Historic Places, US, 2014, NPS, SEGS,” currently only available to internal personnel and state partners. However, the data appears to be available on another website, where they explain software problems have prevented them from publishing more recent information. We expect a good amount of problems like this, unfortunately — problematic IT procurement in the federal government is well-known and well-hated, and it will surely present problems for people in charge of indexing what’s actually be released, identifying where it can be found and ensuring it’s up-to-date.
          6. The EPA has another non-public dataset that jumped out: “Arizona – Social Vulnerability Index.” We found some public information on similarly titled information on websites maintained by the Centers for Disease Control, but it’s unclear whether or not these are the same.
          7. The Department of Labor has some information redacted under FOIA (so far, it’s the only one we’ve seen that does). While redactions aren’t something Sunlight is keen to celebrate, it’s important to note that this successfully proves the concept: even with sensitive information included, these indexes can be released to the public. There appear to be 28 redactions — and thanks to OMB’s guidance, which you can view and comment on publicly, the redactions are done without using a black marker and a PDF! Curiously, most of Labor’s redactions are in “contactPoint” fields — that is, the person who is supposed to be the point of contact for the data — and they are redacted under (b)(7) of FOIA, which applies to records compiled for certain law enforcement purposes.
          8. The Department of Defense, somehow, has not cataloged within its index any “non-public” or “restricted” data, nor does it appear to have redacted any information under FOIA. Hopefully this reflects a choice to focus on publishable data, but, perhaps obviously, Defense is an agency we expect to have a lot of non-public information — information that still very much needs to be indexed and tracked.


          Final Thoughts

          OMB’s unprecedented answer to Sunlight’s FOIA shows an extraordinary amount of transparency and represents a true commitment to open data. We will work to make sure their continued enforcement of open data mandates is similarly zealous and successful. We can’t stress enough our hope that OMB and other agencies will choose to proactively release these inventories moving forward, allowing for continued public engagement.

          Transparency is a bedrock principle for democracy, and increasingly we expect proactive disclosure of government information. It’s not possible to judge, however, what the government is disclosing without understanding what information the government has decided not to disclose. It is similarly impossible for the government to understand its own data practices if it doesn’t know what information it holds — something the public can only view through the lens of the most comprehensive datasets available. These releases make these processes possible.


          Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

          Rethinking the Waterfront – The Architect’s Newspaper, 2/17/15 “Earlier this month Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams announced the release of Stormwater Infrastructure Design Guidelines, which have the potential to generate exemplary landscape design and benefit all of New York City. The Design Guidelines propose to integrate green infrastructure techniques with a 14-mile continuous corridor for […] […]

          Stop and frisk in 4 cities: The importance of open police data

          Stop and Frisks Conducted by NYPD, 2002-2013

          In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of police searches for weapons without probable cause for arrest under the Fourth Amendment. This decision, Terry v. Ohio, held that a limited search for weapons is permitted when an officer reasonably suspects that the stopped person could be armed. Generally, it established the constitutional practice of what we know as stop and frisk, or Terry stops, by police officers.

          In recent years, data collected during Terry stops has shown that some police departments have misused the practice and, in doing so, violated the constitutional rights of some citizens. The practice’s misuse has been attributed to department stop quotas which forced police officers to increase the number of stops they conduct. The increase in stops affected some racial groups more than others, highlighting racial bias in policing.

          In some cities where stop and frisk is practiced, collected data has led to more accountability for both officers and departments. However, in cities where stop and frisk data is not collected, it’s impossible to assess the lawfulness of the practice or hold police accountable. Police departments in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago all practice stop and frisk, but some do better than others in making the data collected available to the public and in an accessible format.

          The state of stop and frisk

          New York serves as the landmark example for how the release of police accountability data can affect the practices of a police department. Public and widespread issue with stop and frisk practices first emerged in New York in the 1990s during the broken windows era of policing. A class action lawsuit challenged constitutionality of stop and frisk practices of the New York Police Department (NYPD) under the Fourth and 14th Amendments: It held they were conducting Terry stops without reasonable suspicion and with racial bias.

          The 1999 class action lawsuit, Daniels, et al. v. The City of New York, addressed racial profiling and unlawful stop and frisks performed by the department. Among other requirements, the court ruled that the NYPD provide data to the plaintiff, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), to conduct quarterly audits of NYPD stop and frisk practices through 2007. After noncompliance with the court’s ruling and a continued increase in stop and frisk events, the CCR filed another class action lawsuit against the NYPD in 2008, Floyd et al. v. City of New York. Rulings consequent of Floyd held that the NYPD must continue to make stop and frisk data publicly available.

          Since 2011, data shows that the NYPD has dramatically decreased their unlawful stop and frisk practices, both in excessive use and racial bias. While the NYPD has yet to release complete data for 2014, data from the first three quarters of 2014 show that stop and frisk “is all but gone.

          Similar to New York City, Philadelphia made stop and frisk data available in result of class action lawsuits that arose from the observation of excessive and unlawful police stops. The Philadelphia Chapter of the ACLU of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) has been integral in advocating for the regular publication and analysis of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) stop and frisk data. The 2011 case of Bailey v. City of Philadelphia alleged that the PPD was conducting stops on the basis of race, thus violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled that the PPD implement an electronic database to collect more detailed and analyzable stop and frisk data. This electronic database was implemented in January 2014. On Feb. 24, the ACLU-PA released its fifth court-mandated report concluding that the data still reflects high levels of unlawful stops, with 39 percent of stop and frisks being conducted without reasonable suspicion. Previous reports have shown that the excessive and unlawful practice of stop and frisk has improved in recent years; data from 2011 showed that 50 percent of stop and frisks were conducted without reasonable suspicion. Despite this decline in unlawful stop and frisks, ACLU-PA continues to threaten further legal action and calls for greater accountability measures for the PPD: “Without strong accountability measures, the high level of violations of constitutional rights will likely continue.”

          Litigation in Philadelphia required the collection of usable data and promoted accountability of the PPD, thus reducing misuse of stop and frisk. But, as highlighted by ACLU-PA, the misuse is still present in Philadelphia, and future litigation may be pursued if “substantial improvements” to the practice are not made soon.

          The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) experienced widespread police reform after what became known as the Rampart Scandal in the late 1990s. The Rampart Scandal resulted from widespread corruption in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, a specialized anti-gang unit, including unsolicited shootings and beatings by officers. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice put the LAPD under a consent decree mandating the collection of field data reports and an independent review of stop and frisk data. This review of stop and frisk data was completed in 2006. The report concluded that there was no statistically significant evidence of racial profiling by the LAPD, but that in some police bureaus there was a significant trend of Hispanics and blacks being more likely to be subject to a frisk than other racial groups.

          Today, the LAPD no longer collects data on pedestrian stops despite extensive reforms implemented from 2001-2009, the years the department was subject to the consent decree. In Los Angeles, without the need to produce stop and frisk data, the ability to hold the LAPD accountable is diminishing.

          Chicago has also had issue with excessive and racially-based Terry stops that emerged in the mid-1990s from the Chicago Police Department’s “gang-loitering ordinance” (which contributed to high levels of arrests). The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ordinance in Chicago v. Morales (1999) with evidence of it supporting an “arbitrary restriction on personal liberties.”

          While dismissed, a 2003 lawsuit filed by Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis, Davis v. City of Chicago, first informed the ACLU of Illinois (ACLU-IL) of the Chicago Police Department’s stop and frisk data collection method using contact information cards. This prompted the ACLU-IL to file two FOIA requests, including one from 2010 data that found 10 percent of stops to be unjustified. However, this analysis of data was shaky as the sample size was small; Chicago PD released only 298 narratives out of the 177,000 on record for the six-month period.

          Despite attention drawn to Chicago’s stop and frisk practices, there has been no successful analysis of the state of stop and frisk practices within Chicago PD. This lack of analysis can be attributed to the poor data collection methods of stop and frisk data that fail to discern what type of police encounter the card is reporting: Terry stop, citizen encounter or gang/narcotics-related loitering enforcement. Further, unlike New York and Philadelphia, Chicago did not undergo successful litigation resulting in court mandates for stop and frisk data collection. Because of the poor data collection practices in Chicago, stop and frisk data simply doesn’t exist.

          Data collection, quality and accessibility

          Chicago PD contact card
          Sample contact information card used by Chicago PD. (Photo credit: Chicago Public Media)

          While the Chicago Police Department does collect data on stop and frisk occurrences, it uses standard field contact cards that fail to produce usable data. The contact cards have not historically differentiated between citizen encounters, stops, frisks and searches. But, in result of the 2012 lawsuit Hall et al. v. City of Chicago and an updated Chicago PD special order, citizen encounters are no longer documented on contact cards. Today, Chicago PD officers are directed to document only “investigatory stops” (i.e. Terry stops) and instances of “enforcement of the Gang and Narcotics-Related Loitering Ordinances” on the contact cards. Even with a reduction in uses for a contact card, contact cards do not communicate what kind of police encounter occurred.

          Front of UF-250
          Front of NYPD’s UF-250 form. (Photo credit: Bullets First)

          To make matters worse, crucial information contained on the contact cards is written in narrative form by officers and is not quantifiable, leaving them nearly impossible to analyze on a large scale. Officers are required to include many important pieces of information about a stop in the written narrative field including: reasons for a stop, description of the suspected crime, information on if the person was frisked or searched and if a weapon or contraband was found. This information is integral in determining if a stop and frisk was conducted — and if it was lawful. Because the written field is almost impossible to analyze, data on the number of and reasons for stop and frisks is nearly nonexistent in Chicago. Despite observed increases in contact card use, there is no database to access data on Terry stops in Chicago. For instance, in the first 10 months of 2013, Chicago PD completed over 600,000 contact cards, compared to the 516,500 from 2012 and the 379,000 in 2011. There is an increase in Chicago PD’s use of contact cards, but it is unknown if the cards are being used for more Terry stops or “enforcement of the Gang and Narcotics-Related Loitering Ordinances.”

          The ACLU-IL has requested the City of Chicago to implement a publicly available stop and frisk database (Chicago PD currently has an electronic database for contact card data) which would create more accountability for the city’s police force.

          Conversely to Chicago, the NYPD has been successful in collecting and analyzing stop data due to its use of a form dedicated to recording all levels of citizen encounters. The form, a Unified Form 250 (aka UF-250), requires the officer to collect information on many aspects of a stop including demographic information on the individual, reasons for stop and an explanation of the event. Unlike Chicago’s contact cards, data collected on the UF-250 is measurable.

          Despite the NYPD’s success in collecting and making available raw stop and frisk data, the data is released in an inaccessible format, .por. This file type is an SPSS Portable File and is opened using SPSS, an expensive software often used by academics for statistical analysis. Because this data is released as a .por file, it makes it difficult for the average citizen to open and use the data. In 2008, the NYPD made its 2006 stop and frisk data available in multiple formats (including the more accessible delimited text format) showing that it is possible for the NYPD to make this data available in an open format.

          Back of UF-250
          Back of NYPD UF-250 form. (Photo credit: Peter Moskos)

          Philadelphia’s Bailey ruling mandated the collection and analysis of stop and frisk data. However, Philadelphia has yet to make its stop and frisk data to the publicly available despite it being regularly released to ACLU-PA for court mandated review. These court mandated reviews do not publish raw data but rather results from analysis on the presence of racial bias in Terry stops. The findings are released in .pdf format on an annual basis.

          Similar to Philadelphia’s annual .pdf reports, the LAPD also published biannual reports from 2001 to 2007 in .pdf format. But, unlike Philadelphia, the LAPD’s reports included aggregate numbers on stops by race, gender, and age as well as counts of reasons for a stop, what was searched and if an arrest occurred. Despite the reports being in .pdf format, the reports produced by the LAPD communicated more detail about the state of stop and frisk than the Philadelphia reports. The dissolution of the consent decree in 2009 ended the publication of stop and frisk data reports — as well as the simple collection of this data. Due to this lack of data collection, the state of stop and frisk in Los Angeles today is greatly unknown.

          What can we learn from these cities?

          In New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, court-mandated data collection and review helped hold police departments accountable for officer actions and ultimately reduced unlawful stop and frisk practices. But, as seen in Los Angeles, with the absence of an external body mandating the collection of this data, the priority for data collection can fall by the wayside. It is necessary that the data is collected and disseminated, but it’s also important that the cultural change have support from within the police department. Without this support, the data may disappear alongside expiration of court mandates.

          The digitization of stop and frisk data was integral to the accountability made possible by court mandates in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York. However, the creation of an electronic database was not as successful in Chicago, where the method by which the data is entered into the database was unusable. Chicago acts as an example that it is not just necessary to collect data, but also to collect usable data with measurement and analysis in mind.

          Aside from the importance of the collection of police data, it is also important that the data be disseminated in a form usable to the public. As exemplified by New York City’s publication of difficult-to-open .por files, making data available is worthless if it cannot be easily accessed. In Philadelphia, data is released only to the ACLU-PA, whereas public .pdf reports are full of results and analysis — not usable data.

          Curious if your police department makes stop and frisk data publicly available, or collects it at all? Contact your department or check out their website and let us know what you find.