On June 1 of last year, the Dallas Police Department launched a new records management and field reporting system. Police officials promised it would give the department “improved intelligence-gathering capabilities, increased accountability throughout the investigative process, and improved integration with the District Attorney’s Office.” The new system would also briefly shut down the online records portal. Thirty days tops, they said. No big deal.
“While it is the strong desire of the City of Dallas and the Dallas Police Department to provide timely and accurate public access to report information, every effort must be made to first ensure that we are in compliance with State and Federal laws and guidelines regarding the privacy of certain information,” read a May 28 press release.
Almost three months later, the reports finally came back—kind of. Before the new system, many reports would include a narrative, outlining what allegedly happened during the crime. “Man punched cousin in face.” “Woman shoved 12 Twix bars down her shirt, attempted to walk out of 7-Eleven.” Things like that. Some were just a sentence or two. But others would stretch over a page, adding valuable context.
The new reports, though, featured no narrative. Seven months later, they still don’t.
Why did the narratives disappear? According to the DPD’s Maj. Rob Sherwin, some officers were accidentally—or lazily, depending on your level of cynicism—pasting the internal narrative into the publicly accessible reports. The internal narrative includes victim names and other identifying factors, so sexual assault or domestic violence victims soon found their names online. Instead of holding those officers responsible, the department chose to shut down the online narratives completely.
The new system makes it harder for journalists to do their jobs. But it also deprives community associations of information that could prove useful in preventing future crimes. And not allowing the full details of a situation to be revealed online can also shortchange officers in the field, says Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. How else to know if a cop does something meritorious?
San Diego State University professor Joshua Chanin studies police transparency. In his soon-to-be-released study on the transparency of police department websites, he ranked Dallas fifth out of the top 10 largest U.S. cities. It fell behind San Antonio and Houston but finished higher than the mean score of the 350 departments surveyed. But that was without taking into account the recent narrative changes.
“To switch back to a system that doesn’t provide the context and the narrative of simple crime statistics seems to not only go against the goal of sharing stuff,” Chanin says, “but it makes the story they’re telling harder to convey in all its complexity.”
The new system isn’t all bad. This fall, information related to certain crimes was added (property stolen in robberies, for instance), and it is now mandatory that police describe the perp’s M.O. And the department’s social media presence is strong, highlighting violent crimes across the city.
“We continue to look for ways to get the public information online,” Sherwin says. “That’s the preference. But how do you filter the right information, complying with the law, while offering the public what they want?”