On May 16, 2009, two New Jersey police officers beat 21-yearold 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 in the years following the incident, his family received no explanation — though, after a video was eventually made public, the state police acknowledged for the first time that unreasonable force was used.
More recently, the death of Freddie Gray while in custody in Baltimore has triggered a wide-ranging debate about policing in America. In order to grapple with the difficult issues surrounding these tragedies, the Cato Institute offers PoliceMisconduct.net — a project originally created by a private researcher in 2009. The purpose of the website, which marked three years under the editorship of Cato’s Tim Lynch in May, has been to bring more attention to the problem of police wrongdoing. Ultimately, the goal is to identify policies that will enhance professionalism and minimize misconduct.
To fill the void in hard data on policy impropriety, the Institute’s researchers scan 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. “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 Lynch, who oversees the Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, of which PoliceMisconduct.net is the cornerstone.
“The victims of police misconduct are too often without a voice, and the extent of the problem was unknown because few seemed interested enough to study it,” he added. “We at Cato thought it important to lend some institutional support to this critical area.” Over the past year, the website has been cited by the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, ABC News, the Atlantic, and Frontline.
Over time, PoliceMisconduct.net will offer a wealth of data on what is currently one of the most troubling threats to our civil liberties. In doing so, the new site dovetails closely with the mission of the Institute at large. “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.