New EPD transparency dashboard to undergo updates amid data concerns


Madison Smith/Daily Senior Staffer

The latest version of Evanston’s police transparency dashboard, which will go live soon, will include more traffic data, and details about use of force. Advocates from CNP and other groups are calling for more transparency in an expanded list of areas, including officers’ accident history and use of military weapons.

Ilana Arougheti, Assistant City Editor

Five years after its inception, Evanston Police Department’s online transparency dashboard will enter its third iteration next month. As resident demands for departmental accountability have adapted and sharpened over the years, the dashboard has remained a point of contention.

The updated dashboard, which will now be largely automated, has a target release date of Nov. 1. However, after EPD denied some community groups’ demands, some residents say the proposed updates ignore their needs and fail to address the shortcomings of the current dashboard.

At an Oct. 14 meeting with residents and officers, Officer Enjoli Daley said the department began work on the dashboard in March 2021. The meeting was the first chance for residents to publicly share their thoughts on the dashboard.

Fewer than 10 residents attended that meeting — a decrease from past police transparency meetings, Evanston Police Cmdr. Ryan Glew said.

Elizabeth Meadows, the vice president of Citizens’ Network of Protection — a local group dedicated to police reform and civilian oversight — said declining attendance levels should be taken as a sign to expand community outreach efforts, starting with greater notice before dashboard meetings.

Two days prior to the meeting, CNP presented a list of 13 demands at a private meeting between EPD and community groups. The demands called for greater transparency surrounding EPD’s interactions with residents from start to finish, and the departments’ community presence outside of responding to calls and incidents. These included requests that the dashboard present statistics on misdemeanor charges and school resource officer handcuff use, among other measures.

Nearly all of the demands were immediately denied, CNP Board of Directors member Neal Weingarden told The Daily. EPD told CNP it largely couldn’t expand the dashboard because they already purchased the software for the new database before hearing feedback from residents.

Glew confirmed that while EPD hopes to work outside of the dashboard to make some of the changes CNP asked for, the existing design of the software was incompatible with most of the group’s requests. One of the demands EPD plans to incorporate is adding statistics on school resource officers and military weapons in the Police Issues and FAQs section of the city website.

“We have looked for different avenues and opportunities to address CNP’s concerns, when it’s where we can with the technology available,” Glew told The Daily. “We were pretty straightforward with what we could and could not do, (so) incorporation depends on how (accepting the demands) is defined and how people look at it.”

CNP’s concerns with the dashboard, however, stretch beyond its push for new data categories. The group said it also opposes EPD’s plan to change the way new data is processed before the site’s old data is clean — an oversight that could provide a bad foundation for holding EPD accountable to the past.

Past problems with the dashboard

The first version of the dashboard, which Glew called “no-frills,” debuted in 2016 in conjunction with Esri, a mapping and analytics software company. Esri has created police transparency databases for other cities, including Asheville, N.C., and Philadelphia.

The dashboard was updated again three years later, this time at a high financial and labor cost, according to EPD, but with a significant expansion of available data points. Changes included a new feature that categorized police encounters by race.

After its debut, the new feature came under fire for misrepresenting encounters with Hispanic residents. Based on federal precedent, the department had been categorizing residents as either Black Hispanic or white Hispanic, skewing the demographic data collected.

History of Data Discrepancy

As the last dashboard vanishes from the city’s website on the eve of the new verion’s launch, the group’s concerns that inaccurate data is being uploaded to the dashboard persist.

EPD regularly sends traffic and pedestrian stop statistics to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The records submitted to IDOT for a given traffic stop are more extensive than those submitted for the dashboard, Meadows said. It’s only when working with IDOT that officers include an explanation of why each traffic stop was conducted and how thoroughly each search was carried out, including listing the specific actions taken during the search.

Similarly, records relating to the number of stops and arrests made by EPD officers uploaded to Evanston’s Open Data portal do not match numbers reported on the Investigative Stops/Field Contact Cards section of the dashboard. In 2017, EPD reported 1,505 total arrests on the dashboard, but only 1,095 on the “Evanston Arrests” Open Dataset within the portal.

When asked by CNP to provide records for all use of force incidents in previous years, there were fewer incident reports the department could find than displayed on the dashboard.

In 2018, EPD reported 23 uses of force through mid-August to the dashboard and 27 through mid-August in their annual report, but provided CNP with records for 30 uses of force. They did not track arrests after mid-August on either the dashboard or the annual report in 2018. EPD reported 35 uses of force in their 2019 report but provided CNP with records of 47 distinct incidents.

EPD declined to comment on differences between data provided to IDOT, Open Data, CNP and the dashboard.

Based on Freedom of Information Act record requests filed by CNP, Weingarden said the data sent to IDOT also doesn’t match the dashboard. Automation could control for human error, according to Glew. But Meadows said the department should update the current database to match traffic records submitted to IDOT.

“We cannot in any situation make improvements unless we tell the truth about what has happened,” Meadows said. “The fact that we have inaccurate information is a problem.”

Glew said the department is expanding what types of data points are publicly available, especially with traffic data. One goal is to track the location of attempted traffic stops rather than the location of actual traffic stops.

Maintaining the website with consistent records updates has been extremely labor-intensive in recent years, particularly after department staffers with database expertise left the city, Glew said. Once automated, the data should maintain itself and previous problems with personnel loss and dashboard use training can be avoided, Glew added.

However, any increased insight the new dashboard could provide will be stunted if residents are unable to access accurate historical data, CNP President Betty Ester said.

EPD’s traffic records are also the only ones stored in IDOT. If similar discrepancies exist between internal department records and dashboard records for other crime statistics, Ester said it would permanently impede residents’ knowledge about EPD activity.

To Ester, data discrepancy would be especially problematic in the dashboard’s use to identify “hotspots” where crime reports are highly concentrated. This would have a dramatic effect in Evanston’s 5th Ward, Ester said, as portrayal as a high-crime area can lead to decreasing property values.

“The 5th Ward was demonized as, ‘Oh, it’s really bad over there’, which has a negative impact on the people that live there,” Ester said. “When one of these negative reports comes out, (residents) have problems selling their property at the price they loaned it.”

A forward-looking view toward data updates could also make it difficult to assess the impacts of city policy changes toward policing, Weingarden said. In May, Mayor Daniel Biss established a new public safety committee with some oversight over the department, and also discussed reducing department funding and authority in the coming months. Last June, Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) publicly committed to working to defund the department.

“If they don’t put old data back in the system,” Weingarden said. “Any policy moves that are made in the future, we will have nothing to compare it against.”

Expected updates

While officers manually entered data into previous versions of the dashboard, the new version will be mostly automated. When records need to be entered by hand, officers will fill out survey documents, which an algorithm will then distribute to the database, Glew said.

The 2021 database will also include sections to track the internal diversity of the police force, and more detailed records examining what happens after officers initiate traffic stops.

Both of the latter were on CNP’s original list of demands. Glew said the department was ultimately able to take action on CNP’s points regarding more detailed records for use of force by officers.

CNP members said the database should also expand from crime to general police activity. This would include metrics like whether officers are Evanston residents, have been involved in motor vehicle accidents or have been the subject of administrative complaints. According to a CNP FOIA, Weingarden said only about 7% of the force actually lives in the city.

The current dashboard updates coincide with a software upgrade offered by Esri. Though the nature of the software update affected changes, Glew said updates still would have been made to the dashboard this year to fix bugs and IT support problems.

As concerns about data discrepancy and additional transparency needs persist, the dashboard has been unavailable since September, when it was taken down to start undergoing construction. At the time of this article’s publication, the website was still under construction.

“It shouldn’t be a crime dashboard,” Ester said. “It should be a dashboard about everything to do with the police.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ilana_arougheti

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