01/22/2015 03:39 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

The Key to Post-Ferguson Reform

With yesterday's revelation that the Justice Department will likely not file civil rights charges against Darren Wilson in the Ferguson case, a major chapter in American policing history nears conclusion. Attention now turns to reforms proposed in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent non-indictments of the officers involved. Already, ideas such as demilitarizing the police, placing body cameras on officers and addressing the grand jury system have received considerable attention.

But the Brown and Garner incidents are merely the bleeding edge of a broader topic of police misconduct. Most incidents of alleged misconduct do not involve a violent death, and they don't end in a criminal or civil court. Rather, they are typically handled within the officer's own department through internal investigation processes ranging from formal inquiries to administrative hearings. So, in translating the anguish around Brown and Garner's deaths into results, the mundane-seeming work of examining and perhaps reforming internal investigations becomes critical.

Yet policymaking regarding internal investigations is gravely hindered, often to the point of sclerosis, by a lack of data. Any serious policy discussion needs a sound foundation of information, but so many police departments withhold data on internal investigations that it can be difficult to even grasp the scope of problems, much less prescribe solutions.

To be clear, I'm talking about aggregate data: the number and nature of incidents, demographics, dispositions and trends. Personal information should remain confidential for officers' safety, and it's not about second-guessing individual case outcomes. Many states prohibit Freedom of Information Act requests regarding details of internal investigations. Aggregate data, though, can be released voluntarily by departments and are, in fact, required for coherent discussion of an important public issue. In the interest of good policy, and as a meaningful response to last year's public outcry, departments should release the data.

It's easy to understand police rationales for withholding data. Closing ranks is the natural path for institutions that are archetypically insular and protective of their own, particularly when it comes to documented cases (or accusations) of misconduct. Departments correctly recognize that releasing a trove of data to the public would invite a reciprocal avalanche of criticism and second-guessing. A chief or commissioner might even seal his own ouster by releasing data about investigations that occurred during his tenure. And departments may fairly question whether releasing data would be constructive, given the public's poor understanding of policing and, in some cases, angry antagonism toward the police.

Still, the benefits of releasing the data outweigh these legitimate reservations. By improving the body of knowledge about policing, politicians, bureaucrats, academics and citizens will be better equipped to help police identify areas for improvement in handling internal investigations. Sometimes, whether because of human fallibility, institutional fallibility or more nefarious reasons, departments may get things wrong. Armed with data, outside stakeholders can help.

There are ancillary benefits, too. A majority of U.S. police departments have adopted principles of community policing, which holds that working partnerships between the police and community can play an important role in reducing crime and promoting security. A department practicing community policing needs public trust. Where, for example, a community generally perceives the police as irregular guardians of the safety and rights of black citizens, community members might be skeptical of "working partnerships" with the police. Transparency regarding officer misconduct can help the police earn trust.

Securing public buy-in doesn't just serve safety and security aims, it helps preserve an officer-friendly system in which departments are largely responsible for self-discipline. Alienate the public with an insular and malfunctioning internal system for long enough, and it is not hard to imagine a future crisis point in which the public frustration boils over into beefed-up civilian review boards and more civil and criminal actions against officers. Surely, police would prefer the milder reform of making the existing system more transparent.

And in the likely event that releasing data about misconduct can improve internal investigations processes, officers themselves are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries. No one, particularly the good officers who comprise the vast majority of the American police force, should have to work in an environment where administrative justice is meted out unevenly or insufficiently. A well functioning internal investigation system is better for police than a poorly functioning one.

The prospects for more data release have modestly improved over the last few decades as departments have become less high-handed, more community-oriented, and occasionally, in the cases of New York City and Kansas City, for example, somewhat receptive to research. The coming months will tell whether the events of 2014 help the cause of transparency, by convincing departments of the need to be upfront with a restless public, or hurt the cause, by convincing departments of the need to close ranks.

Ultimately, as goes police culture, so goes data. And as goes data, so go prospects for internal investigation reform in a post-Ferguson America.