New Report on Police Misconduct

At the Washington Post, Tom Jackman highlights a new report documenting arrests of police officers across the country. The report, entitled “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested” and written by scholars at Bowling Green State University, estimates that three American police officers are arrested per day every year. The years covered in the study cover 2005-2011.

From the WaPo story:

The most common crimes were simple assault, drunken driving and aggravated assault, and significant numbers of sex crimes were also found. About 72 percent of officers charged in cases with known outcomes are convicted, more than 40 percent of the crimes are committed on duty, and nearly 95 percent of the officers charged are men.

[…]

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” said Cara Rabe-Hemp, a professor at Illinois State University who has studied police deviance. She said the effort is the “first-ever study to quantify police crime” and shows it is “much much more common than what police scholars and police administrators previously thought.”

A representative of the National Fraternal Order of Police union stated that the numbers are small when put in the context of 900,000 police officers nationwide. But there is nothing contradictory between his statement and that of Professor Rabe-Hemp. The raw numbers the BGSU researchers found are interesting, but we can be sure that they do not tell the whole story.

At the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, we collect similar data that is consistent with the BGSU findings. Every day we find cases of misconduct, both on and off-duty. Some incidents result in arrests, other incidents are handled administratively, and some others are revealed by civil suits brought by victims and surviving families of police misconduct. We track the stories over time to see how they are handled by the police and prosecutors as the cases move through the labyrinth of administrative, civil, or criminal procedures.

We find cases where officers are arrested and convicted of crimes. But we also find officers who are given “professional courtesy” and not arrested for drunk driving. We see cases in which officers plea down their violent and disturbing felony cases to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, which allows them to maintain their peace officers’ license. We find longstanding criminal conspiracies that sometimes take years to uncover. And, just today in Baltimore, we see prosecutors unable to convict the officer believed to be most culpable for the conduct that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray. It is impossible to gauge the extent of misconduct because we don’t know how much of it the police and the media are catching.

Part of the reason NPMRP tracks these stories is to get a better sense of how different police agencies handle their misconduct cases, as well as the judicial systems that are sometimes involved. For a number of reasons—the Blue Wall of Silence, qualified immunity, use-of-force protocols, political pressures, the Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights, and sympathetic juries, among others—it is very difficult to bring criminal charges against a police officer, let alone secure a conviction, absent incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing.

As I testified last year before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, policymakers, watchdog agencies, and police leadership can benefit from more collection and analysis of police misconduct data. The new BGSU report is a welcomed one. It is 209 pages plus another 440 pages of notes and appendices, and we’re looking forward to digging further into those findings. You can read it for yourself here.

We are doing our part to make these issues clearer at NPMRP, which you can check out here. Keep an eye on NPMRP for more information about police misconduct in the coming weeks.