The threat of police misconduct seems to be more prevalent than ever before, but how common are incidents of malfeasance?
The frightening truth is, we really don’t have any idea. As was made abundantly clear when we recently looked into how common it was for police to plant evidence, the data on officer misconduct is not just hard to parse, or problematized by non- or misreported incidents. The data simply does not exist.
To find out why, we spoke with Bowling Green State University’s Associate Professor Philip Stinson, a leading authority on police misconduct statistics—both by virtue of his expertise, and because he is one of the only people in the country who is even attempting to collect a body of data on police crime.
Since 2005, Stinson, an ex-police officer himself, has been using Google Alerts to collect and sort news reports of any type of police misconduct that results in an arrest. “Policing is a subculture. There is a lot of distrust of outsiders,” says Stinson. “Police crime is a hidden crime. We don’t know much about it. There’s no data.”
Even defining police misconduct is a challenge, as it encompasses a wide range of possible crimes ranging from abuse of power to theft to use of deadly force. But no matter the specific crime, there is no universal system of accounting. “I have to constantly remind myself in my data that I’m dealing with outliers,” says Stinson. “Ninety-nine percent of officers never get in trouble.” But some inevitably do, so where are the numbers on these offenses?
Right now, the only reliable metrics on police misconduct are reports in the media, as they are independently verifiable. As Stinson told us, in the United States alone there are somewhere between 16,000 and 18,000 non-federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including sheriffs, state police, municipal police departments, independent school district police departments, park police, tribal police, and more. In over a decade of collecting numbers on police arrests, Stinson has only come across data from around 3,000 agencies.
Even though there are no official numbers, statistics on the use of deadly force and police violence tend to be relatively robust, due to the fact that these more extreme crimes will almost always make more headlines. But other offenses such as DUIs and domestic violence are often not reported, the officers just quietly resigning rather than facing prosecution. There might be information in their personal files, but no one seems to be looking at those.
Specific agencies may keep internal records of complaints against officers, either in their personnel files or, in the best case scenario, in some form of agency-wide database, but this information is only rarely accessed by a larger organization like the Justice Department or the FBI. Mostly, each agency’s records are a unique, self-contained body of information.
“If they are under a consent decree, they may have reporting requirements to the Justice Department, but that’s a handful of agencies across the country,” said Stinson, “Most agencies are just left to their own devices.” Large agencies like the New York Police Department perform internal audits and have active anti-corruption task forces, but such self-policing happens in a small number of the overall agencies in the country.
This is not to say that there have been no attempts to audit the misconduct in the country’s various police agencies. Stinson told us of attempts by the Justice Department and other regulatory agencies to collect data on various forms of police misconduct. But he says the majority of agencies have refused to comply, upholding some form of the not-so-mythical Blue Wall of Silence—the tacit code that says police don’t report on police. According to Stinson, some states, such as Florida and Ohio, provide more access to agency records than than others, but even there, there is no process in place to gather the aggregate numbers into useful data.
Even if the files and interdepartmental statistics could be accessed and collated, there is still the issue of misreporting, which could be, and likely is, a massive problem in police culture—but we don’t have the numbers to know for certain.
Being aware of the lack of usable information about police misconduct is just the beginning. According to Stinson, the next step in fixing the problem is self-evident. “First of all, we need more data,” he says. and his method of data collection may just be the way to go. “The Justice Department, the FBI, the Bureau of Justice are starting to use my methodology of relying on news reports,” Stinson told us. “People are now realizing that it’s a lot better than other ways of gathering data because we can’t get the agencies to comply when we do require them to submit things.”
As for ordinary citizens, Stinson advises people to be more aware and involved in what is going on in their local law enforcement agencies, and even look into going on ride alongs. He also believes that recording police behavior using smartphone cameras can help. “I’ve got colleagues who would not agree with me,” said Stinson. “I don’t think you can get in an officer’s face … use common sense. But I think all of these videos are game changers.”
Stinson keeps the numbers in his database close to the vest, but will share them on request. But even his system, while actively collecting, has a lag of a few years as the media follow up on what happens to officers arrested for misconduct. Some resign, others remain on active duty, others are fired, and a few are prosecuted. Working only on limited grant money, some of which has come from the Justice Department, Stinson is attempting to streamline and refine his work to make his numbers more immediate and actionable. But it is slow going.
Having reliable, or even consistent, numbers on the amount of police misconduct is vital to the developing strategies for improving police culture on a national stage. Until then, it seems like Googling for data is the best we can do.