Turning Community Dissatisfaction into Data-Driven Solutions


As several high-profile incidents around the country have shown, many Americans are deeply dissatisfied with policing. Police departments are looking for ways to respond. Surveys based on the customer satisfaction model could play a key role in making sure those responses are informed and meaningful. Surveys can channel public discontent in a productive way, generate valuable data, and develop much-needed community-informed solutions.

In our tech-driven world, of course, police departments are already getting lots of unofficial “customer service” feedback. A year ago, four kids in Georgia built Five-O, a mobile app that lets people post public ratings of any interaction with a cop. The Android app has been downloaded tens of thousands of times and currently has a 4.3 star rating. The creators of Five-O have stiff competition. Yelp—the site famous for crowd-sourced reviews on everything from brunch spots to barber shops—includes a staggering number of reviews of local police departments.

On top of this, many police departments—large and small and across the country—use more formal customer satisfaction surveys as a way to collect feedback and data. A quick Google search results in dozens of links to police department surveys of one form or another. Yet many police departments either do not use surveys at all or do not use them to best effect.

Police departments have a history of overreliance on input-based evaluations. Police officers are often primarily assessed with only a few easily-quantified metrics—the number of hours they work, arrests they make, and citations they hand out. Experts have increasingly called for police officer evaluations that incorporate assessments of external policing processes, such as voluntary and involuntary contacts with community members. Even as progressive police departments seek to incorporate “community policing” strategies, however, evaluations of officers and departments remain overwhelmingly focused on traditional metrics of success.

If survey results are used at all, it is as a supplement in narrative form with little actual effect on officer performance evaluations. Unless community engagement is captured in the metrics traditionally used to evaluate officers, they will have little direct incentive to spend their time building relationships, rapport, and trust.

Customer satisfaction surveys provide an opportunity to incorporate community feedback into the data and metrics used to evaluate policing. For example, police departments can adopt survey methods that result in more useful data by collecting feedback in the form of ratings and rankings from the start. In order to collect the most robust and accurate data, departments should (1) make surveys as accessible as possible; (2) open surveys to everyone in the community (including those who have involuntary encounters with officers); and (3) create mechanisms for comprehensive follow-up that makes the process meaningful (for example, by directly communicating with survey respondents and transparently using feedback to inform policing policies and practices).

Once data is collected, the obvious next step is to make use of it. RespectStat, a new approach adopted in Chicago, shows how one department with police-community tensions is looking to put this data to work. RespectStat analyzes data on the quality of police-community interactions by collecting responses from people who have recently interacted with an officer during a traffic stop or crime report. The Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) has used RespectStat satisfaction survey results to inform officer training on police legitimacy and procedural justice. While RespectStat is still in its infancy, CPD also plans to use survey results to analyze trends in policing satisfaction by hour, shift, unit, employee, demographics, and district; highlight “hotspots” of dissatisfaction; and, as a result, facilitate accountability within the department. As survey-based approaches like RespectStat gain traction, it will also be important for police departments to consider how customer service data can be used to identify individual officers who may be in need of early-intervention or even discipline, while ensuring these processes remain fair and comply with applicable employment and labor laws.

Customer satisfaction surveys inform business practices across numerous industries by providing a way to identify and meet customers’ needs. These same benefits are available to police departments and the communities they serve. If surveys can be implemented in a way that leads to department responsiveness, they will prove a valued tool in building community trust.