Open Justice Baltimore creates an openly searchable database of Baltimore’s cops

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Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

Data scientist collective Open Justice Baltimore has assembled a new database with information on thousands of city police officers, comprised of data from public records and vetted, crowd-sourced information from the general public.

The tool, dubbed BPD Watch, includes the names, badge numbers, salary history, unit assignment, photos (where available) and other details about more than 3,000 individuals employed by the Baltimore Police Department as of late October of 2018.

The bulk of the records come from two police rosters obtained via Maryland Public Information Act requests, published here, though co-organizers said future rosters will be added to keep it current.

Transparency is the chief goal. The group is seeking to offer a centralized hub for links to past misconduct or cases that have been reported on by local outlets.

“When police officer disciplinary records are kept secret, and even our own Civilian Review Board gets denied critical records by the Baltimore Police Department, problem officers get shuffled around the department and almost invariably face no consequences for their misconduct and abuse,” the co-organizers wrote in a message to Baltimore Fishbowl. “We see this not only with a department, but between police departments across the country. When we give officers a badge and gun and the authority to kill, the public should at a very least know who they are and what their records are.”

It’s modeled after a similar initiative, OpenOversight, that launched in Chicago in 2016. The database consists of information compiled from Maryland Public Information Act requests, news reports and crowd-sourced tips, vetted with “a range of things, from the Sun to social media posts from BPD itself to publicly available information,” the organizers said in a message.

An example would include grabbing content from BPD’s Facebook page, such as an image of an officer interacting with locals with their badge and name tag showing and their name in the caption.

Co-organizer and developer Dan Staples said he was inspired to bring such a project to Baltimore after he met the chief technology officer of Lucy Parsons Labs, which created the OpenOversight platform, in 2017. He later linked up with activists Zach Zwagil and Megan Kenny, who had been working on a separate project to ease the laborious process of compiling records from the not-so-user-friendly Maryland Judiciary Case Search database of court records. With help from volunteers, the team began assembling the data and designing the BPD Watch platform last year.

“Projects like BPD Watch and OpenOversight give citizens and the media the information about officers that they need to hold our police departments accountable,” they said.

Media will be able to use the tool to search for details on specific officers for stories, and citizens who have “negative encounters with police” can use it to look for officers’ identifying information, such as a name and badge number, to file a complaint, they said.

Attorneys can make use of it as well, particularly in cases where they’re representing people alleging abuse by police. “Knowing the history and records of the officers involved in your case can be incredibly important, and we want to make sure the public has easy access to that information.”

Kenny, Staples and Zwagil said their contact with BPD on this project was limited to their public information act requests.

Asked whether the department foresees any issues stemming from officers’ information being published online, police spokesman Matt Jablow said, he’d “have to learn more about it,” but has not responded to subsequent emails.

The city’s police union, FOP Lodge 3, did not respond to a request for comment.

Open Justice Baltimore’s plan is to eventually link officer profiles to public records of court cases from Maryland Judiciary Case Search, which is the thrust of a separate Open Justice Baltimore project called Case Harvester that mines Case Search records.

The group noted Case Search in its current form is a “clunky and antiquated technology” that can be problematic for journalist and data scientists studying the state’s court system. “The tools we’re building should hopefully make that process much easier and more accessible.”

Upon its launch yesterday, the site only included photos for about 6 percent of officers on police rosters, which Kenny, Staples and Zwagil hope to improve upon with images submitted by the public.

As for other information, they’re welcoming any tips, so long they can be verified and that the information “has been vetted and published by a reputable source.”

“Due diligence is very important for us so that we can ensure our data is accurate,” they said. “The project’s success relies heavily on its credibility and accurate data is the cornerstone of that.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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2 COMMENTS

  1. Oh yeah, this will definitely get your police working hard and sticking their necks out! Another awesome step in saving Baltimore lives! It’s good that violent crime isn’t out of control and we can make oversite a priority! Smh

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