This post has been updated.

Transparency is one of those buzzwords that politicians and government agencies like to say they support, but its definition can be hard to pin down.

San Diego State University professor Joshua Chanin has tried to find a way to measure transparency in police departments across the country. The results aren’t pretty, including locally.

“Police departments are not transparent,” Chanin said. “San Diego is in good company in that respect.”

Chanin examined the websites of more than 300 city and county police departments to see whether they provided information about contacting the department, filing complaints, using force and any other insight into how the departments operate. He said websites aren’t the only measure of transparency, but they’re the primary way departments communicate with the public. Chanin hasn’t published his findings but previewed the data with Voice of San Diego.

The chart below shows the overall transparency scores. Departments are measured on a 41-point scale and the chart indicates how many departments received a certain score. I put the score of our lowest local department, Temecula, in yellow and our highest, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, in green. The San Diego Police Department scored a 6. Its score is in red.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The horizontal axis shows the transparency score and the vertical shows the number of departments receiving that score.


Lots of departments don’t measure up well. But some are leaps ahead of others. The highest ranking department is Brookline, Mass., a small, tony Boston suburb. Big cities are near the top, too. Austin and Los Angeles’ police departments rank second and third. SDPD doesn’t fare too great even when you isolate rankings of departments in the nation’s 10 largest cities.


Chanin found nearly every department scored a point for publishing its contact information on its website. But what about more detailed data and policies, such as traffic stop data by race, officer discipline information and instructions for filing public records requests? Chanin grouped those variables into a category he called accountability, which ranked departments on a 25-point scale.

Again, Temecula (yellow) scored the lowest of local departments and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (green) scored the highest. SDPD’s score is in red. Austin, Pittsburgh and Brookline score the highest overall on accountability. Like above, the horizontal axis shows the transparency score and the vertical shows the number of departments receiving that score.


Chanin did this research in part to see how different kinds of outside oversight might affect police departmental transparency. So far, he’s found that departments with civilian review boards affiliated with a national nonprofit are more likely to have greater transparency scores. These boards examine various factors of police operations, especially how departments handle complaints. The civilian oversight agencies that belong to the nonprofit National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement exist because of government mandates.

Here’s how departments with and without those boards compare, with SDPD’s score included for reference.


Based on these numbers, you might think SDPD doesn’t have a civilian oversight board. It does. In fact, the board’s vice chairman said at a recent panel he’s been pushing for the department to put more of its policies online.

Chanin said membership in the national civilian oversight organization means a department tends to value transparency. But there’s a disconnect here.

“San Diego has invested in this oversight mechanism yet not found other ways to push the department to disclose information,” he said.

SDPD spokesman Kevin Mayer said the department plans to meet with Chanin to discuss his findings.

“We welcome input from any person who may have an idea on how we can better reach the public with information,” Mayer said.

What All This Means

It would be easy to translate these results to say departments that score high are “good” and those that score low are “bad.” But it’s not that simple. Police departments in Seattle and Pittsburgh, for instance, score high in transparency. Both have had recent high-profile scandals that resulted in formal federal oversight. It could be that reforms required by those monitors made the departments publish more information on their websites, Chanin said.

“In my view, transparency correlates with a good police department,” Chanin said.

Since this research is new and we only got into a bit of it here, I’ve asked Chanin to monitor the comments section of this post to respond to questions. He graciously agreed. So have at it.

    This article relates to: News, Open Government, Police, Share

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

    msginsd subscriber

    Seems to me that this article puts the cart before the horse.  Until the assistant professor publishes his paper and subjects it to critical review, it's a bit disingenuous to say “Police departments are not transparent,”.  The other comment,  "In my view, transparency correlates with a good police department," likewise is without supporting evidence.

    And shame on Liam Dillon for not once telling his readers in what subject  Dr Chanin is an assistant professor.  Readers shouldn't have to leave VoSd to find that basic information.

    joshuachanin subscriber

    @msginsd  Thanks for taking the time to read the piece. You're right to suggest that the findings will hold more weight after they have been subject to peer review. I expect the paper to be submitted for publication in the coming weeks, and with it a more thorough analysis of those factors that drive agency transparency, including variables like crime rate, history of reform, and other socio-economic and demographic factors. When this portion of the research is complete I am happy to discuss it. 

    This analysis is not needed to have a basic discusison of police department transparency, in SD or elsewhere. Peer review is not likely to affect the fundamentals of the transparency index, nor will it change the raw findings discussed above. The scores upon which the article is based simply reflect information available on various police dept websites. The approach is reflective of practices used in other, similar research and is highly replicable. If you've got the time/interest, I would love for you to help validate our findings by reviewing the websites yourself.

    See below for a discussion about the relationship between transparency and 'good' policing. 

    joshuachanin subscriber

    More follow-up to Randy Dotinga's questions: 

    This study doesn't provide any insight to the question about ability to obtain data through formal request. In separate research I asked LAPD for information and found them very forthcoming; I haven't made similar requests of any other CA jurisdicitons. My (totally unscientific) hunch is that willingness to disclose information, particularly data related to something potentially sensitive like officer use of force, is correlated with my transparency index. Future research!

    Like any self-respecting academic, I must qualify the quote about transparency correlating with 'good' policing. I think transparency is a virtue in and of itself and that a department that discloses information is held publicly accountable by the act itself. To my mind, an accountable department is necessarily 'better' than an unaccountable one (or one that exists without the possibility of public account owing to a lower level of transparency). 

    One of the central challenges for policing researchers (and police executives) is to define 'good' policing. Some believe that crime rate is the only metric that matters; other see response times as most important. Still others believe that legitimacy in the eyes of the community help to define a good department. And so on. Part of this research will work to evaluate the relationship between transparency and these other values (esp crime crime control). When this analysis is finalized I am happy to share the findings. 

    I hope this helps. Great questions. Look forward to answering anything else that comes up!

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber





    On the Edge of Night

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    What information isn't on the SDPD website? Do other police departments in California make it available? (I'm wondering if there are any state laws regarding police officer discipline information, for example.)

    Is this missing information available if you contact the SDPD and ask for it?

    What evidence does Chanin have that "transparency correlates with a good police department"? It sounds logical, but where’s the proof? 

    joshuachanin subscriber

    @Randy Dotinga  Great questions, Randy. And thanks for interest in the issue. In very simple terms, I awarded point(s) when certain pieces of information were found on police department websites. As Liam's story suggests, these things ranged from contact information to data on civil litigation filed against the department and/or it's officers. SDPD has very basic info available - including department address/phone numbers, social media info, basic crime data, and information on how to file a complaint against department officers. 

    I surveyed 52 departments in CA as part of my sample. The high was LAPD, with a score of 31/41. Lake Elsinore, a mid-size city in Riverside county received a 1. The mean for CA jurisdictions was 8.15, marginally less than the full sample mean of 8.42.

    I'm not aware of CA state law that mandates the capture/disclosure/release of specific data or information. Other states and cities do. Texas, for example, requires certain police agencies to disseminate data annually on traffic stops by race and gender. Cities like Pittsburgh are required to public annual reports within which use of force data and other information must be included. 

    joshuachanin subscriber

    I think it is worth noting that these data do not mean that SDPD is purposefully holding information back in an effort to hide something. My sense is that few police departments see much benefit from the disclosure of data/information to the public, and that whatever benefit does exists is outweighed by what is seen as a good deal of risk.