When data journalism meets hyper-local — Oakland Local launches Police Beat

Police, arrest

Most of the attention that gets paid to the growing field of “data journalism” gets focused on ambitious, national-level sites like Ezra Klein’s Vox or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight — but data exists in all kinds of places, and can be used in different ways. One example of an interesting attempt to use public data to highlight an issue of social importance is Oakland Police Beat, a new project created by the non-profit news outlet Oakland Local in California.

In a nutshell, Oakland Police Beat uses publicly-available statistics and records from court filings to create a database of violence and alleged impropriety involving the police department in the city, a growing metropolis on the east side of the San Francisco bay that has seen a number of high-profile cases in which critics say police violated the civil rights of Oakland citizens.

Abraham Hyatt, a former managing editor at ReadWrite and the co-founder of Police Beat, describes it as “an investigation into one of the most troubled police departments in the nation.” The project was financed by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism and has been more than 18 months in the making, Hyatt said in an email.

Oakland police beat1

In a blog post about the project’s methodology, Hyatt explains that the site went through 1,368 lawsuits and complaints filed against the Oakland PD between 1990 and 2013 that were settled out of court — a dataset supplied by the Oakland city attorney’s office — and found that almost 400 of these cases involved civil-rights violations. Those cases are the basis for a series of stories and interactive infographics that will be published twice a week for eight weeks. Hyatt also said that all of the stories and data will be available for anyone to re-use under a Creative Commons license provided the source is attributed.

Oakland police beat

The founder of Oakland Local, former Yahoo and AOL executive Susan Mernit, says that the site decided to create the Police Beat database after a number of incidents during the Occupy protests, and because Oakland’s police department “has long had a reputation as an agency riddled with internal dysfunction and a history of abuse, including corruption, brutality and lack of accountability.”

Mernit says the inspiration behind the project came from Homicide Watch DC, a site run by Laura and Chris Amico that tracks every incident of violence in Washington. The Oakland Local founder said she wanted to take that same kind of data-oriented approach but “turn it inside out” and look at the causes of the violence, and the role played by the police department.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Shutterstock / bikeriderlondon

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