A small portion of American police pull up a third of complaints in large cities

A subset of police officers in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia are causing a huge share of people’s complaints of misconduct in those cities, according to an analysis by data from the Financial Times, which raises questions about the surveillance of those they are facing several charges.

Thousands of officers in each city have received at least one complaint at some point since 2007. Of them, 10 percent of the most frequently called officers have generated about a third of all complaints. The disproportionate result shows that complaints are highly concentrated among what some advocates of police responsibility call “repeaters” – officers who collect complaints from the public but face little discipline.

Scrutiny of bad police behavior intensified since the assassination of George Floyd a year ago by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which has sparked protests around the world. Chauvin, convicted in April, has filed at least 17 complaints against him during his 19-year career in the force, with one that led to disciplinary action.

The FT’s discovery repeats what an independent commission found 30 years ago when it examined the Los Angeles Police Department after Rodney King’s beating. The commission, led by Warren Christopher, then United States Secretary of State, determined that among officers with complaints of excessive force or improper tactics, the 10 per cent with the most complaints generated almost 28 per cent of all complaints.

“I reject the notion that this is a few bad apples – it’s a larger subgroup of this – but it’s still a relatively small subgroup of the general force,” said Jamie Kalven, journalist and activist he cited in the case to render published the data of misconduct of the Chicago police. . “Models jump only at you… You have individual officers who have an extraordinarily high level of complaints. [in relation] to force in everything ”.

John Miller, deputy public information commissioner for the New York Police Department, said the complaints were allegations that could be unfounded. He also noted that “about 90 percent of NYPD officers spend their entire careers without a single test. [Civilian Complaint Review Board] complaint or departmental accusation ».

The Philadelphia Police Department, which released him a report last week saying less than 1 per cent of civil allegations had resulted in more than one reprimand, he said he was “fully committed to improving current practices”.

The Chicago Police Department declined to comment.

In Chicago and New York, defenders have fought battles for years in the courts to force city police departments to publicly release information about incidents where residents have formally accused officers of misconduct.

The Invisible Institute, which Kalven founded, and the New York Civil Liberties Union have used the complaint information to build separate online databases. U Citizen Police Data Project in Chicago extends from 1988 to 2018 and includes complaints that are currently being investigated. In New York database, released this month, includes records dated 1985 but only for closed cases.

The FT analyzed closed complaints in the Chicago and New York databases from 2007 to 2017, and all complaints for the past five years in Philadelphia. The city of Pennsylvania has had information available for fewer years but will publish it online on a rolling base.

The analysis found that in Chicago, a median of 13 complaints were filed against officers in the 10 percent who received the most complaints among all officers who received at least one. Officials in the 10% group were the source of 37% of all complaints.

In New York, the same group had a median of seven complaints and received 32 percent of all complaints. In Philadelphia, the median was five, while the group received 28 percent of all complaints.

Most of the 15,300 U.S. law enforcement agencies do not make publicly available data on complaints of police misconduct. The lack of data makes it difficult to test if the same pattern appears in other cities, even if researchers generally accept it. exists in police departments in most large and medium-sized cities.

Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that there is no complete federal report even for incidents where police kill someone. News organizations and advocates have estimated that officers kill about 1,000 people a year in the United States, but there is no official account.

“The whole reporting and accountability system at the federal level is essentially non-existent,” he said.

Miller, of the NYPD, said that while most officers do not have disciplinary records, “it is not uncommon for very active officers to receive complaints, especially when they are active in the criminal fight.”

Robert Kane, head of the criminology department at Drexel University, said the complaints are correlated with officers ’contact with the public allowing police departments to move too easily.

“If you have to contact‘ risky people ’on a regular basis, you should become really good without generating complaints,” he said.

Network chart showing officers from a single Chicago police district who have been named together in at least one complaint of misconduct in front of civilians

Some academics have even found that bad behavior can spread. Northwestern University sociologist Andrew Papachristos said his research, along with George Wood and Daria Roithmayr, suggested that officers with high levels of grievances could lure colleagues into “networks of misconduct” – groups of officers who are appointed together in multiple grievances.

“Deviance is a group behavior,” he said. “The idea that it’s just ‘bad apples’ always forgets the rest of the analogy. Bad apples rob the group.”

In all three cities, only a small portion of the charges led to disciplinary action. Kalven said the impunity with which the “repeaters” were operating undermined public confidence in the police. He added that when the police departments refused to act on the complaints of misconduct, it turned the actions of a subgroup into an institutional failure.

“To the extent that the government engages in voluntary ignorance,” Kalven said, “they allow things to go on that will cause harm tomorrow.”

Methodology and sources

Data and code for this story are available on GitHub.

Our analysis differs slightly from city to city. For Chicago, we used 2007-2017 police misconduct complaint data obtained from the Invisible Institute and included only complaints faced by civilians that were filed by citizens and closed in that period. For New York, we used 2007-2017 data obtained from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which, by default, includes only closed complaints filed and investigated by the Civil Claims Review Board. For Philadelphia, we used 2015-early 2021 data from OpenDataPhilly and Sam Learner and included pending and even closed claims due to the shorter period.

It can be more than one allegation in a given complaint. For example, an incident may have multiple charges against more officers, and in New York and Philadelphia data, an incident may contain more than one charge against the same police officer. We collapse the charges for officer under complaints in our analysis, so for complaints appointing a particular officer multiple times, we count the officer only once.

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