Typically, when we hear about a city or state choosing not to gather more potentially useful data because it’s too time consuming, we push back.
But there are exceptions.
A notable one is an element of New York City legislation called the “How Many Stops Act”, which would require New York police officers to report on every single police street stop and investigative encounter, including demographic information about the person stopped and the reason for the encounter.
We agree that officers should be held accountable and that strong actions are needed to prevent racial profiling. But in this case, we’d argue the legislation goes a few steps too far. It would require, for example, that following a crime, police officers would have to fill out a form to record every time they interact with a witness or a possible witness.
Let’s say for example, a liquor store was robbed, and the perpetrator ran out into a busy city street afterwards. When police arrive at the crime scene and ask dozens of people on the street whether they saw anyone running out of the store, they’d have to do the appropriate time-consuming paperwork.
Without disputing the goals of gathering this information, the question is this: Regardless of the validity of a cause, aren’t there instances in which gathering mountains of data is potentially counter-productive?
On January 19th, New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams vetoed the Bill, tweeting out the following: “You know my story. I've been the victim of police abuse. And I've been a police officer. But while our administration supports efforts to make law enforcement more transparent, more just, and more accountable, this bill would take officers away from policing our streets and engaging with the community. Today, I vetoed the ‘How Many Stops Act’ because it will make our city less safe.”
On late afternoon Tuesday, January 30, the City Council overrode the Mayor’s veto, and the bill will now become law.
Jim Quinn, who was executive district attorney in the Queens District Attorney’s office and now writes for the New York Post did a little back-of-the-envelope math in that newspaper: “There are about 30,000 uniformed police officers, detectives and sergeants. If just half of them fill out only one form a day, and it takes one minute to complete, that is 15,000 minutes — or 250 hours of police time wasted each day.” And that’s just one form a day per person!
The word “wasted,” is a little too strong for our tastes, as we know there are instances in which this information would be valuable. From our perspective though, this presents the kind of question that’s easier to ask than to answer: “When it comes to requiring that more data be gathered, will the benefits outweigh the costs?”
One element involved in considering this question (though not one that necessarily applies to the police data in New York City) is whether the managers or elected officials in an organization are really going to use the data that’s been painstakingly gathered. These are busy people and many of their computers are jammed with gigabytes of spreadsheets and hundreds of data points.
When data can be gathered from information that’s automatically being generated (like time sheets or budgets) this is less of a concern than when the data requires public sector staff time to assemble.
We’d argue that this should be central in the minds of people who are determining what data-gathering requirements we impose on city and state employees.
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