Throughout the country, police departments collect or have access to a large amount of data involving topics such as stops and searches, criminal histories, use of force, officer-involved shootings and crimes occurring within their jurisdictions and surrounding areas. Officers use this data to make individual decisions in the field, and police chiefs and other command staff use it to develop strategic priorities.

However, police departments do not always effectively using the data available to them to improve their operations, measure their effectiveness and make the community safer. Sometimes, it is helpful to look at how the private sector’s practices to get ideas about how to improve police departments.

The authors of A Five-Step Process to Get More Out of Your Organization’s Data discuss how human resources managers collect information about employees, but do not do a great job of leveraging that data for insights into the organization. The authors suggest improving data practices in five stages so companies can “become much more effective at solving some of the most pressing problems they face.” Although the article focuses on human resources management, these lessons can easily be applied to law enforcement.

1. Improve your data quality.

In his blog post 240 Years Later, Smart Leaders Still Use Intelligence to Make Good Decisions, Hillard Heintze Director Andy Davis noted the importance of seeking “accurate and insightful information and intelligence to make the right decision.”

Law enforcement has often struggled with the quality of data, from criminal history records to intelligence information. Developing information that law enforcement can use starts with good data quality. Departments should have a plan in place to make sure the appropriate data is collected and quality control mechanisms, such as edits and audits, are in place.

Many resources are available to assist law enforcement with ensuring data quality. A good starting point is the Global Information Sharing Toolkit, which provides options for locating the best solutions to justice information sharing issues.

2. Link your data.

In our Law Enforcement Consulting practice, we often work with police departments that would like to assess their performance in a number of areas. For example, to ensure that its traffic stops are bias-free, departments often seek help in combining their data on traffic citation and warnings with demographic information, crime locations, crash data and community complaints about traffic safety issues. Linking data in this way can help the department determine who is being stopped and whether those stops are proportionate to the driving population and areas where traffic safety is an issue.

In the community policing context, departments use problem-solving techniques involving various data sources to solve community problems. Generally, police departments have the technical capacity to link their data, but many departments engage local criminal justice researchers to assist them in their efforts.

3. Analyze your data.

Data analysis is one of the keys to public safety. Basic crime analysis identifies patterns, trends or hotspots where resources can be allocated. Quality analysis of data is the core of intelligence-led policing, which incorporates intelligence into the police department planning process to identify and address community problems and issues.

Data analysis is also used in early intervention systems that systematically identify behaviors of individual officers to identify those who may be likely to engage in potentially damaging behavior before the behavior occurs. Additionally, data analysis can support administrative needs including forecasting, succession planning and staffing. These issues are often critical given the multi-service approach of many law enforcement agencies.

As discussed above, police departments can conduct their own data analyses, but may choose to seek outside assistance from others such as local criminal justice researchers.

4. Infuse your data with theory.

Many law enforcement agencies address similar issues. Although data can provide helpful information, the data needs to be put into context. Simply put, I have the data, but what does it mean and how do I interpret it? For many law enforcement issues, research has already been conducted to add context to the data a department collects and analyzes.

Agencies should develop initial theories about their data that are informed by research and their own law enforcement experiences. Reviewing the data with an initial theory in mind can help explain relationships identified by the data and provide direction to address any potential issues.

It is important to keep in mind that the data may or may not end up supporting the theory, but the theory provides the department with a starting point for looking at the analysis. Our Law Enforcement Consulting team’s approach is informed by research, our collective years of law enforcement experience and the results of hundreds of law enforcement assessments.

5. Implement changes and track the outcomes.

Once a department has gathered data, linked it with other data, and analyzed and infused it with theory, the next step is to implement changes to improve the situation – whether it is reducing crime rates or reducing the incidences of use of force by officers. Importantly, the outcomes of those changes should be regularly tracked to measure performance.

Well-known management expert Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” As police departments have access to an increasing amount of data, they need to seek better ways to use that data to expand that view beyond crime data to improve their responses to community concerns, increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the departments, and continuously measure their performance. Following these five steps outlined above is a good start to achieving those goals.