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Outside Firm to Analyze the Way Police Bureau Uses Data

As Mayor Bill Peduto continues his quest to modernize the way the city gathers, uses and shares data, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is becoming the next department to have its practices put under the microscope.

City Council on Monday discussed a bill that would allow the Bureau to spend $32,000 on a consultant to perform an organizational assessment and strategic evaluation of the Bureau’s data usage policies.

Acting Police Chief Cameron McLay said he wants the department to be more proactive and less reactive to crime trends in the city.

“The way you do that is by having data available to track what’s happening and especially to catch those things that cause citizens to want to call but don’t always result in a police report,” McLay said.

He said currently, the department assigns patrols and identifies priorities using historical crime data culled from police reports, which leaves a “mountain of data” unutilized. A proactive approach would mean adding data from 911 calls and calls to detectives and individual police divisions to develop a real-time picture of criminal activity in the city.

McLay said he plans to make such data publicly available.

“One of my objectives is for us to be far more transparent with our crime data … because the more well-informed people are, the better they work with us,” he said.

Councilman Ricky Burgess agreed with that observation, and said he thought a more nimble, precise approach to policing would solve some of the issues of mistrust in the police department that plague many low-income neighborhoods in the city.

“When it is quick and specifically-related to what is going on at the moment, residents (are) much more likely to embrace it, because they can see it is action connected to what’s going on on the ground right now,” Burgess said.

Several other members of Council applauded the proposal, including Council President Bruce Kraus, Natalia Rudiak, Darlene Harris, Deb Gross and Dan Gilman.

“Data is the most powerful tool in the world, and not taking advantage of technology because of this belief that the human eye is better is false. It’s certainly a mix, it’s not a replacement, it’s a mix,” Gilman said. “But if we leave this data on the table, shame on us.”

McLay said they are allotting 90 days for the analysis from ESM Advisors, LLC, but predicts that it will be completed much more quickly than that.

The bill received preliminary approval in the Council Committee meeting on Monday with all yay votes and one abstention from Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who said she needed more information about the proposal. A final vote is scheduled for next week.