A digital survey tool to be used by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to help the agency understand community perception of crime, safety and its officers was approved by the City Council last week.
MPD officials say data from the survey, which could go live as soon as Nov. 1, will help the department better do its job in responding to crime while also improving how officers are seen by community members. But council members who voted against the proposal say more should be done to improve the poor perception of the department by residents before investing dollars into measuring how communities view the police.
“I can see this kind of data playing a role but it’s half a million dollars and it does feel like a perception survey is, at least for me, not rising to the level of priority,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, who chairs the Policy and Government Oversight Committee and voted against approving the contract. “I’d like to see some execution of some of the things that we think will change perceptions before we’re sort of taking the measurement of perception.”
Ellison called the $500,000 investment too early. He said he would like to see parts of the consent decree with the federal government and the settlement agreement with the state Department of Human Rights implemented before taking the temperature of community members’ thoughts on police.
The contract is for three years between the city and Zencity Technologies, a technology platform for local and state governments, and public safety agencies that uses targeted online surveys to gain public input. Zencity was awarded the contract over five other companies after city officials put out a request for proposals in June. It is unclear whether local Twin Cities-based companies or businesses of color were among the five other companies considered for the contract.
Zencity aims to use digital ads to recruit a sample size of residents that resembles the demographics of the city. Those ads will feature a small survey that asks about community members’ perception of crime, safety and MPD officers. The department will then use a program called Blockwise to consistently monitor the data
“Police departments for decades have measured crime rate as the success metric for what policing is, and I think there is a growing recognition that crime reduction alone is not the entirety of the mission of policing,” said Michael Simon, Zencity’s chief strategy officer. “We can keep crime low, but also make sure that policing is aligned with what community wants their police to do and how good of a job they’re doing it.”
The New York-based platform began its work in 2016, but saw much of its growth following the murder of George Floyd by then-MPD officer Derek Chauvin. It is now used by several dozen government organizations and agencies, including police departments in San Diego, Seattle and Louisville.
Simon said the San Diego and Louisville Police Departments in particular consistently release the data they garner from the surveys. By doing that, he said, the agencies significantly improved transparency and accountability by putting police, faith leaders, media and other public safety stakeholders on the same page about what officers are learning from the data and how it informs their work after that.
“It has been encouraging to see and for most agencies that do this now, this has become the norm,” he said.
MPD Chief Brian O’Hara told council members the need for the survey tool was urgent due to its ability to be used to determine both the level of trust that residents have toward the department’s officers, as well as to offer a way for residents to relay crime trends in real time.
“It’d be helpful on an operational level and that’s just information that we completely don’t have,” said O’Hara. “We have anecdotal stories, we will get calls from people who are most likely to call us but we are not hearing from the majority of our residents.”
Zencity had its first meeting with MPD officials earlier this week. Simon said the platform typically rolls out its surveys between 15 and 45 days after a contract is signed, so the surveys could go live as soon as Nov. 1.