Transparancy of Police Misconduct Data

A revolution is on the rise. It seems that with the daily onslaught of news of police-on-public violence, efforts to curb the tide are inevitable. With the proliferation of smartphone video, social media, and even police cams, there has been an impact. Now more than ever policy misconduct is being publicized and addressed. No one doubts for an instant that police misconduct has always been a problem plaguing especially urban, poor, and black communities. But with new technologies, these instances are being recorded and publicized.

Nothing will have as much an impact as the revolution that is happening right now in Chicago. With new transparency and data mining, there is going to be some accounting to be had.

It has started with the advents of the Citizens Police Data Project, an online database that gives the public access to Chicago police misconduct records. Nothing like this has ever happened in the world of Chicago police. It was only recently that a person could be charged with a crime for recording or taking video of police without permission. Police would routinely seize and destroy your cameras if they saw you – at best. At worst, you’d go to jail.

Gaining access to police misconduct records required a Freedom of Information Act Request, which were rarely granted. But not only is the entire database of records available for free to the public, a coalition of legal experts and data mining experts have organized it to make some startling conclusions.

The 10 year long partnership between the Invisible Institute and the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic is where it got started. The team has examined thousands of complaints going back as early as 2001.  

The team found that of the 56,370 misconduct complaints made, which are listed in the database, less than three percent ever led to any disciplinary action.

Also, the team found that officers who were “repeat offenders” in that they had a large number of complaints lodged against them, were even less likely to suffer any disciplinary action.

60 percent of the complaints documented in the database were lodged by African Americans.  

In cases where a complaint led to a charge of proven misconduct, 85% of the time, the officer received a very light disciplinary action – less than five days of suspension.

The team found that the discipline is often very capricious. For example, an “administrative violation” such as having a second job, the typical punishment would be a suspension of 16.5 days on average. But the punishment for rape or sexual assault, is only six days on average.

They found that the vast majority of complaints are lodged against a very small percentage of officers. Most officers have very few complaints lodged against them. In fact, 90 percent receive zero to ten complaints, 80 percent have zero to four.

It is the ten percent of the “problem officer” who really are the problem. Ten percent receive more than ten complaints, which is 30 percent of all complaints. These officers have on average four times the number of complaints lodged against them as the average officer – or the other 90 percent. So in a way, it really is just a matter of a few bad officers.

Oddly, these “repeat offenders” are less likely to get a complaint to turn into what’s called a “sustained finding.” In fact, only 4 percent of these complaints turn into an actual punishment. Whereas the non “repeat offender” is punished in 9 percent of cases.

African American officers who have had a complaint lodged against them are more likely to be punished than a white officer who has received a complaint.  

These are shocking findings. And the preliminary results raise more questions than answers and we can be sure there will be more findings in the near future. The bigger question is, what will be the response from the police to these findings?