By Allan Parsons
The author is an engineer for a publicly-traded technology company. He holds a B.S. in both Computer Science and Business from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s been a resident of Los Angeles since 2012 and currently lives in Venice.
Los Angeles District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin wrote an Argonaut opinion piece in recent months entitled “Reimagining Public Safety” in which he presented results of data collected from a June 2020 survey of his constituents in Council District 11 (“CD11”). The survey (whose results are titled “Reimagined Public Safety” on CD11’s website) attempted to crowd-source answers about who should respond to 34 hypothetical public-safety and quality-of-life scenarios. For example, “Who should respond to reports or phone calls of vandalism or graffiti in progress?” Sadly, Bonin deceived his constituents by misrepresenting the facts in his op-ed to The Argonaut.
Here’s how Bonin’s survey worked: A series of questions were presented in a Google Form to Los Angeles residents asking what agencies they’d prefer to respond to hypothetical scenarios (e.g. a domestic dispute). Constituents were then prompted to select one — and only one — responding agency from a drop-down menu of 10 choices that included options such as LAPD officers, trained volunteers, traffic enforcement personnel and mediators, among others.
Bonin’s analysis in The Argonaut stated that “while a majority of the 2,672 respondents favor an LAPD response to violent crimes and property crimes in progress, residents overwhelmingly prefer non-LAPD responses to most other situations for which police officers are routinely called.” That sweeping generalization wasn’t quite valid; the survey was poorly designed.
I know this because I filed for this survey’s raw data through a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request. Reviewing the data, I found that over 30% of the survey respondents declared that they did not even live in CD11. While Bonin stated the data presented on his Council District 11 website included only his constituents, his op-ed to The Argonaut made it less clear whether non-CD11 constituents were actually excluded when forming his opinion and setting public policy around funding for the LAPD.
Bonin stated that 2,672 people responded to his survey as of noon on June 17, 2020. But using the same date obtained from Bonin’s website indicates that there were a total of 4,001 respondents. I filtered out those who self-reported not living in CD11, and I arrived at 2,872 respondents who live in Councilmember Bonin’s district. Why did Bonin’s dataset include 200 fewer respondents? Did Bonin remove any responses from the “analysis” he published? If so, why?
In the graph below, you’ll see a breakdown of responses by neighborhood, including those who self-reported that they did not even live in Council District 11.
Further, quality controls were absent when designing this survey. The data quality is important because it ensures that you’re collecting an accurate representation of your desired population’s surveyed sentiment toward LAPD’s involvement in both violent and non-violent crimes. Glaringly, within this survey, there were no security or audit controls in place to ensure users didn’t submit answers more than once. Respondents to the survey were not required to login or to verify their email addresses. IP addresses were not captured. It’s important to note that IP addresses are oftentimes shared amongst many people in offices, libraries and homes. One IP address can be legitimately shared by multiple family members weighing in on the “Reimagined Public Safety” survey. Or, one IP address could be nefariously used by someone wanting to skew the results by taking the survey dozens of times using invalid, made-up email addresses. To reiterate, the survey didn’t validate email addresses.
This information is important because there’s no way for Bonin to know if several thousand people were taking the survey in good faith, or if it was one person submitting several thousand responses to a survey that could ostensibly be used to advance his personal beliefs and ultra-liberal, progressive policies through budget cuts to the LAPD. A more appropriate method of ensuring “one person, one response” is to force users to SMS verify before submitting answers. Most people have only one cell phone, making it exceedingly difficult and laborious to submit multiple responses to the survey (though there are ways around that, too).
Contrary to Bonin’s assertion that CD11 constituents overwhelmingly preferred LAPD responses to all non-violent crimes, an analysis of the data actually reveals that CD11 constituents overwhelmingly preferred LAPD to respond to certain non-violent crimes like reports or phone calls about loud parties and excessive noise. The statement made by Bonin, “it was clear that my constituents strongly favor narrowing the scope of LAPD responsibilities,” is an overly broad generalization — especially considering flaws in the wording of the questions and the choices for responders to the 34 hypothetical scenarios.
By presenting 10 choices of first-responders to 34 hypothetical scenarios, Bonin diluted each choice’s weight, nearly ensuring no single entity garnered enough favorability to secure a majority. So while the LAPD often did not achieve greater than 50% favorability in any of the 34 hypothetical scenarios, neither did any of the other 10 choices in the drop-down menu for a majority of the scenarios.
Honing in on data where the LAPD was strongly favored to respond — and contrary to Bonin’s assertion — in my analysis, after filtering out questions where LAPD was not the preferred first responder, I found that Westsiders favored an LAPD response to both violent and non-violent crimes, including responding to and investigating reports of graffiti in progress, trespassing, shoplifting, drug sales, loud parties, domestic abuse, violent crime, shutting down illegal businesses, stolen property and identity theft, among others. It was an easy, cheap-shot for Bonin to falsely claim that “residents overwhelmingly prefer non-LAPD responses” (see Figure 2).
If Bonin’s goal was to decide which agency should respond to each of the 34 scenarios based on constituents’ responses in CD11, he missed the mark. By giving too many choices in the drop-down menu, he fragmented answers enough to inadequately conclude that Westside residents “‘overwhelmingly’ prefer non-LAPD responses to most other situations for which police officers are routinely called.”
Absent from the dataset are likely those in District 11 who are in underserved areas, those not on social media, and those who were sick from the coronavirus (the survey only lasted six days, about half the time it takes a healthy person to recover). Bonin’s survey made no attempt to collect basic demographic data about race, age and income. Families without access to the internet, either at home or from a closed library, may have been left out of Bonin’s survey as well. The elderly, who do not have email addresses or social media to learn about the survey, may have been left out, too. We don’t know if it was only the upper-middle class who responded. We don’t know if the working poor had a say in Bonin’s petition to “Reimagine Public Safety” and vote to reduce the LAPD’s budget by $150 million. In a predominately white district, we don’t know how people of color responded to this survey because Bonin didn’t ask.
If Bonin heavily relied on this survey to make policy decisions affecting the public safety of CD11 residents, he failed his civic duty and oath of office to his constituents. He didn’t collect demographics. He allowed people to submit answers more than once. He may have manipulated the data by removing responses he either didn’t like or didn’t agree with; (I was never able to arrive at the published number of respondents to this survey.)
Bonin resorted to sweeping, over-generalizations of his data (and the demographic makeup of the survey respondents) to try to convince CD11 constituents that we support his own personal narrative of what needs to be done. He has allowed his personal agenda to drive his constituent representation obligations time after time. The voices of constituents are repeatedly put aside when he does not agree with them. Manipulating and making sweeping generalizations of data is just another way for Bonin to try to prove his own agenda is in line with the residents he represents. But, the data obtained and analyzed tells a different story. It’s time Bonin stopped using Google Forms with no security controls to poll his constituents for input on public safety matters. It’s time he used data responsibly, valuing the input from the constituents he represents. And, whether he agrees with us or not — set policy for his district and for those he is paid handsomely to represent.
Finally, Councilmember Mike Bonin utilized taxpayer dollars to create, gather and manipulate the data from a poorly designed survey. He then used this unreliable data to send out misleading communications. It is incumbent on him to correct the record, be transparent with his raw dataset(s), and to send out corrected communication to his constituents admitting that the data he previously presented included input from outside of his district and excluded members of the community who deserve a seat at the policy-making table; that graph (shown in Figure 1 above) was conveniently omitted from Bonin’s website.
Thanks only to a Freedom of Information Act, and our willingness to demand this information, are we able to discover how misleading Bonin has been.
If you’re interested in the raw data to run your own analysis and see how people in your neighborhood responded to the survey, it’s published here at https://tinyurl.com/boninrawdata. You can use the “Dashboard” tab to slice data by “Question” and by “Neighborhood” to discover how misleading Bonin has been in his efforts and personal agenda to defund the police.
Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position or endorsement by The Argonaut. The opinions, experiences, research and data analysis expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.