July/August 2012

The Cato Institute Launches PoliceMisconduct.net

On May 16, 2009, two New Jersey police officers beat 21-year-old James Bayliss during a traffic stop, at one point slamming his head against a tire while his limp body lay handcuffed. Bayliss is mentally disabled.

Despite dozens of attempts over the last three years, his family has still not received an explanation — though, after a video of the incident was made public this June, the state police acknowledged for the first time that unreasonable force was used.

In an effort to bring more incidents like this to light, the Cato Institute has launched PoliceMisconduct.net, a project originally created by a private researcher in 2009. The purpose of the website is to bring more attention to the problem of police wrongdoing and to identify policies that will enhance police professionalism and minimize misconduct.

The site's resuscitation comes at a time when hard information on police impropriety is severely lacking. In 2004 the Department of Justice released a statistical report analyzing misconduct trends — yet the report was based on stale data that had trickled in voluntarily from less than 5 percent of the country's 17,000 police departments. That was the last such analysis generated by the Department of Justice.

To fill this void, our researchers are scanning media reports each day to locate news stories on misconduct, record those reports in a database, and transmit the details through a social media newsfeed on Twitter — providing transparent data that allows for independent verification through public review.

The purpose of the website is to determine the extent to which law enforcement officials exceed the limits of their authority. "We are simply trying to create a ruler with which we can measure police misconduct, so that people can determine for themselves if it's really a problem," says Tim Lynch, who oversees Cato's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, of which PoliceMisconduct.net is the cornerstone. Each quarter, the database is reviewed, categorized, and analyzed to produce statistical reports that identify patterns in the types of misconduct that occur and what factors might affect the likelihood of abuse.

These quarterly updates will provide the raw figures for a yearly aggregate report, which examines some of the more long-term trends that emerge — including localized rankings, agency comparisons, detailed per capita rates, and other statistical information.

Over time, PoliceMisconduct.net will offer a wealth of data on what is currently one of the more obscure threats to our civil liberties. In doing so, the new site dovetails closely with the larger mission of the Institute. "We believe good policy analysis can improve government decisionmaking," Lynch says. To the extent that PoliceMisconduct.net provides a window into where specific procedures go wrong, we hope to improve lives as well.