After talking to the sister of a woman who had a traumatic run-in with Miami police during a June protest, a light bulb went on for WLRN reporter Danny Rivero.
Rivero had the name of the woman’s arresting officer and could easily access records that listed his record of complaints, suspensions, and reprimands. But he figured the public might not have the same familiarity with police records, so he set out to create a tool to make that information more accessible.
Yesterday, Rivero announced the beta launch of Badge Watch, a website and soon-to-be app that keeps track of use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints against City of Miami police officers.
“When the police pull you over, they have access to all kinds of databases from where they’re sitting,” Rivero tells New Times. “They can check your criminal record, your driving record. The idea of what I’m doing is the other end of that. When you get pulled over by a cop, wouldn’t it be great to pull up your own database on your phone and look up how many complaints they’ve had?”
Rivero spent about a month poring over agenda packets from the City of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an oversight board that investigates misconduct complaints against police officers, to create a spreadsheet of officers’ names, badge numbers, use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints, administrative complaints, and other data points.
Earlier this month, he put out a call on Twitter, seeking a coder to help make the database public and searchable. Gregory Johnson, founder and director of the nonprofit Code for South Florida, responded. Within a few days, Johnson was able to release a beta version of the site.
“I think it’s a necessary public service,” Johnson says. “This is what I do — build an action-oriented organization around taking technology and using it for good and for the public’s interest.”
Users can visit badgewatch.org, input an email address, and gain access to the database to browse through the list or to search for officers by name or badge number. Johnson says the website asks for an email address for the purpose of obtaining feedback at a later date.
“It’s to make sure this is built with people in mind,” Johnson explains. “We’re not selling their information, we’re collecting it so we can reach out to them. In the next 30 days, we’ll reach out, get feedback, and go on to the next iteration of the app. Hopefully, we’ll get more data about how this app could help them in their lives.”
Badge Watch isn’t yet available for download from Apple’s App Store or Google Play. Until it is, users can access the website on their phones and add it to their home screens.
For the time being, the database contains information about officers investigated by the CIP since November 2018. Each individual officer’s entry links back to a CIP report. Rivero says he plans to keep going back to older CIP investigative documents to update the database.
“We’re making sure that, slowly, we make this as 360 as we can,” Rivero says.
Johnson says the beauty of the project lies in open data.
“It was great Danny decided to take this on himself,” Johnson says. “The average person doesn’t have the skills of a journalist to know where to go. That’s why we’re pushing for this open data advocacy. This data should be easier for the people to reach. Hopefully, this kind of initiative gets traction.”
Rivero says the database has some limitations. It shows the number and types of incidents, which is what is largely available in CIP reports, but not whether an individual complaint was sustained or otherwise determined to have been justified. That would likely require spending thousands of dollars in public records requests to review police internal affairs documents.
And if, for example, an officer was last investigated by the CIP in 2018, the number of complaints reflected in the database is as of 2018.
“There could be more that happened after the fact of one of these investigations,” Rivero notes. “But what shows is a minimum of what we know for sure an officer has in terms of complaints. I can only track things that are in these documents.”
Rivero says Badge Watch is about creating more transparency and consolidating information that the public may not find easily accessible. The data tell their own stories.
“You’ll see some officers have been on the force since the ’90s and early 2000s and have relatively few complaints,” he says. “And then you have some officers hired only a few years ago that have, compared to their longtime colleagues, a lot of complaints. A lot of them have a lot of use-of-force incidents and civilian complaints within just a few years. When you look at those things side-by-side, obviously there’s a difference there.”