Stev Weidlich: Mining data to address policy issues at DPD 

By Leslie Brown, Department of Public Defense

Remember story problems from high school math — those vexing questions about the arrival times of trains or the number of apples a shopkeeper has to sell to break even? Some of us hated them. Stev Weidlich loved them.

And today, he’s putting that puzzle-solving mind of his to good use. Stev is the research and data analyst at the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), where he ferrets out the answers to tricky questions every day. How many DUIs did one of the divisions handle at the Maleng Regional Justice Center? How often is Rape 3 the initial charge? What percentage of our cases involved the work of an investigator?

“It never feels like work to me,” he said. “I guess it’s one of my boring traits. I never get tired of looking at spreadsheets and looking at data and trying to communicate data to people. It’s what I like to do.”

Stev, a Cincinnati native who acquired his nickname from a misprint in a high school drama program, started at DPD nearly two years ago after working for many years as a cultural anthropologist at various consulting firms. He was drawn to the county because it provided some security: His consulting work had a feast-or-famine pace to it. But the position at DPD also held another lure. It enabled him to continue to pursue his passion of using data to shape and inform policies that help people.

“Throughout my career, I’ve worked with homeless populations and other underserved people in rural and urban areas,” he said. “I wanted to continue to do that. It’s important to me – ethically and religiously – to apply my skills to help people.”

These days, it means he’s working on a range of projects addressing needs at all levels of the department.

He’s helping to establish a text-messaging system that will enable attorneys to let their clients know about upcoming court appearances, thereby addressing failure-to-appear rates. He’s the data contact for outside researchers at Notre Dame and Stanford who are trying to figure out if pre-loaded Orca cards would also help people make their court dates.

A project he particularly enjoyed was building the department’s police accountability database, called the Brady database for Brady v. Maryland, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that could exonerate a defendant. The database enables attorneys and investigators to look up officers involved in their cases and determine if they lied about evidence or kept shoddy records in the past, Stev said. “I think it really helps our staff.”

Stev’s currently working on one of his toughest assignments to date – using data to try to establish appropriate workloads, which in turn can help to inform the staffing levels the department needs. It’s made challenging because of the quality of the data. “It isn’t fantastic,” Stev says. Still, he has many threads he is now trying to weave into a cohesive picture – HR data, assignment numbers, hours worked per case, number of closed cases, and more – all with an eye towards helping the department understand the number of attorneys and other professionals it needs to do the complex work of public defense.

As a cultural anthropologist, Stev worked in California, Alaska, and elsewhere on a range of Native American issues, from tribal fishing rights to cultural resource issues. Now, he says, he’s taking that same skill set and applying it to questions relevant to criminal justice.

“When I came here, it was a major career shift,” he said. “But I’m still doing what I love: Crunching data to help people get the answers they need.”