Safely Sourcing Data

Safely Sourcing Data

CopDB is getting closer to launch, and as it does some of our preparations have shifted from technical development to how to acquire data. The long term goal of the project is to allow anyone to make an account and submit reports which, after being reviewed, can be published. Unfortunately doing that in a way that is legally safe is challenging and, since we aren’t legal experts, might take a while to prepare for. If you don’t like reading legal jargon from a not-lawyer, skip to the TLDR 😅

The bulk of the work needed to allow public reports to be published involves defining the moderator guidelines, which are the rules mods will apply when reviewing reports. From the limited amount of legal input we’ve been able to receive, it’s clear that we need to ensure officers’ home addresses are not published and that section 230 will likely play a large role in the project going forward. Section 230 basically limits the liability of “interactive computer service providers” with regard to what user’s say on their platform. This is well out of our wheelhouse to interpret and is why the project is currently seeking legal assistance so we can proceed safely.

So this begs the question, until we can safely ingest user reports, what data will we publish? Fortunately, there is a lot of data that is technically publicly accessible but is very difficult to access. We don’t want to divulge all of these sources since some might be relatively easy for police groups to interfere with but one of the best is, unsurprisingly, news articles. Currently, many news sources have reports on all sorts of misdeeds involving the police, but these are rarely collated in any way and it's difficult to get any real data out of them as a whole. For example, it is very difficult to determine the history of a single officer without doing a deep dive into a bunch of news publications, often spread out over the various jurisdictions that officer has worked in.

An even better source is something called the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council meetings. POST Councils are able to suspend or revoke officers’ POST certification, which is commonly, although not always, required by departments. In Utah, the requirements for the POST council to be able to take action against an officer is for the officer to have violated one of two statutes (§ 53-6-211 or § 53-6-309) and have either been convicted of a crime in relation to their law enforcement position or have been disciplined by their department and that the disciplinary action was ‘sustained’ through the department’s procedural appeals process. That’s a lot of jargon, but basically these council meetings directly give us legally-valid evidence that says X officer committed Y.

Incredibly, the POST council meetings often cover extremely heinous behavior by officers that we have been unable to find from any traditional news sources. Even more disturbing is the frequency with which actions that would be very serious if committed by a normal citizen, are not taken seriously or seen as valid by these councils. Listening to these meetings, aside from being disturbing, is an excellent example of the places where enforcement of the law is unevenly applied.


Until we can get clear legal guidance, which we are working on, we are only going to publish data from clearly legally safe sources. We don’t want to share all of these sources for fear that they could be shut down by law enforcement groups, but there is still a massive trove of currently unindexed, unsearchable, and almost unfindable, data that we will be collating into the database. In terms of data just on the employment of officers, we should be able to launch and almost immediately have nearly every officer in the state, which will make reporting on incidents much easier.