- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Amid a growing national conversation about police shootings, Salt Lake City police are launching a website to post open data about how often officers use their weapons.

The Utah department is part of a small but growing number of agencies around the country who are moving to put the information online in an effort to be more transparent.

Advocates say it’s an important step to open up data that’s often kept close to the vest, though some say it doesn’t go far enough.

The web page is an outgrowth of a White House push to make public more data about police use of force, according to Salt Lake Police. It’s one of 53 departments around the country participating in Police Data Initiative. A handful of departments have posted spreadsheets of similar data to an online portal.

“More departments are realizing that getting out ahead of this is more important than waiting for the next media incident to blow up and shift the narrative for them,” said Damian Ortellado, a research analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, which has been tracking the data released as part of the White House project.

Utah’s capital city became a flashpoint in the national debate in February, when people protested the critical shooting of a 17-year-old Somali refugee. Police say he refused to drop a metal stick being used to beat a man, thought that account was disputed by the teen’s family and friends.

Salt Lake City’s new website is interactive. Users can manipulate the data into charts and graphs based on factors like the race of the person stopped, the type of weapon the officer used or any injuries the suspect suffered.

For example, 93 percent of February’s force reports were for handcuffs. Tasers were used in less than 1 percent of cases, and 2 percent involved officers showing a handgun, according to the website.

While the website is useful, it’s also incomplete, said Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, a Utah group that’s pushed for more open data. The site doesn’t detail exactly when or where a confrontation happened, making it hard for people to get a full picture, he said.

“A cynic might say providing aggregate information like this scratches the itch for transparency but doesn’t deal with the underlying condition,” Boyack said. “This is definitely a step in the right direction, but we’ve got the rest of the football field to traverse before we really get to where we need to be.”

The site could include more detail in the future, said Sgt. Robin Heiden, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake City police. Police are planning on rolling out two more data sites, one for assaults on officers and another specific to officer-involved shootings.

So far, the site includes data for the month of February. The department plans to post more 2016 numbers, though not older data.

Going forward, police will post a month’s worth of data at a time, usually about a month after it’s reported to allow time for the data to be entered.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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