It would be hard to find an American over the age of 25 who hasn’t had at least one face-to-face interaction with a police officer. Even those who haven’t are just one car accident, stolen bike or blown red light away from such a meeting.
Yet despite the fact that policing is arguably one of the most important and powerful service professions a civilized society can produce, it’s far easier to find out if the plumber you just hired broke someone’s pipe while fixing their toilet than it is to find out if the cop patrolling your neighborhood broke someone’s head while arresting them.
A 31-year-old computer programmer has set out to fix that glitch with a new web-based (and soon to be mobile) crowdsourced rating tool called CopScore that is designed to help communities distinguish police officers who are worthy of praise from those who are not fit to wear the uniform.
“My goal is to provide a level of transparency into what kind of people police departments are putting on the streets,” explains CopScore creator Arion Hardison, whose day job is platform director at Los Angeles-based NationBuilder — a developer of digital tools for community organizers. “Right now police insist on being viewed and respected as a class, so you don’t know how to tell the good cops from the bad ones. I wanted to find a way to show police as individuals.”
Hardison launched CopScore in January with $15,000 of his own money and is currently trying to raise $10,000 to continue development and engage community groups to help pilot it.
CopScore is a work in progress, and, for the time being at least, a one-man show. Hardison does all the coding himself, often working through the night to bring new features online.
Currently in the very early beta stage, the platform works by consolidating information on the service records of individual police officers together with details of their interactions with constituents. The searchable platform includes data gleaned from public sources — such as social media and news articles — cross-referenced with Yelp-style ratings from citizens.
For Hardison, CopScore is as much a personal endeavor as it is a professional one. He says his youthful interest in computer programming — which he took up as a misbehaving fifth-grader under the guiding hand of a concerned teacher — made him the butt of the occassional joke in the predominantly African-American community of North Nashville where he grew up.
But even his status as a high-dollar tech worker hasn’t protected him from the profiling and harassment faced by all men of color, regardless of age, title or the number of zeros in their paycheck.
“Young black men in America are raised knowing they are viewed differently by police, but it doesn’t really hit home until it’s reinforced,” says Hardison. For him that moment came in 2008, shortly after moving to California, when he called the Lynwood police dispatch to report the theft of two laptops and an iPhone that had been taken from his room.
“Instead of helping, I ended up cuffed in the back of a cop car being run for warrants while an officer searched my room,” Hardison recalls. He says the officer left after he finished checking him out without so much as filing a report about the stolen items.
That negative experience with police was the first of many he has had over the past six years, he says, working as a programmer in the tech hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles — where a black man running late to work with a laptop in his hand can qualify as reasonable suspicion for a stop-and-frisk. (Hardison says it’s happened to him twice).
Hardison designed CopScore, in part, to give a voice to people who have similarly frustrating encounters with police, and to provide community organizers, journalists and researchers a potentially powerful tool for exposing police misconduct.
But he’s also sensitive to the pervasive negative attitude many communities have developed with regards to police, and he is quick to point out that CopScore is not just about calling out bad officers, but also celebrating good ones.
“I understand there is an inherent bias against officers so I’m really working to offset that,” he says. “My point is to actually facilitate change, and you can’t do that if you’re validating people’s existing ideas about police behavior.”
Journalists and data scientists are optimistic about the potential of a tool like CopScore, but with a few caveats.
George Fachner, a police research scientist, says CopScore has the unique potential to put first-hand citizen accounts of encounters with the police in the hands of researchers who specialize in analyzing police behavior. But he adds that crowdsourcing has its limits.
“In terms of measuring overall citizen satisfaction with any particular officer or department, I would be most concerned with the representativeness of the sample of entries on the site and, therefore, validity of those measurements,” Fachner says.
There’s also the issue of bias. Hardison has spent a lot of time thinking about that and is working tirelessly on a workaround. So far he has verified more than 7,000 of the original 25,654 officer profiles he used to populate the site by recruiting teams of community organizers in select cities to serve as auditors. This involves everything from confirming an officer’s badge number to checking news articles to verifying details of noteworthy events. Ratings from individual citizens or alleged victims of police violence are not independently checked, however, which opens the potential for subjective embellishment, at the very least.
Journalist Kenneth Lipp, co-editor of The Declaration, which exposes police malfeasance, echoes Fachner’s concern about the pitfalls of drawing inferences from small sample sizes. But in light of the deficit of available data on police encounters with citizens he seems less concerned about bias.
“For my personal purposes, every source, even one which I have to retroactively verify, is welcome,” he says. “As long as the climate of official opacity exists on my beat, gleaning sites like CopScore for news is a task I go about regularly and gratefully because that’s the only way I can do my job.”
Christopher Moraff writes on politics, civil liberties and criminal justice policy for a number of media outlets. He is a reporting fellow at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a frequent contributor to Next City and The Daily Beast.