A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. -James Madison
Seven years ago, in 2002, the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics compiled reports from police departments with 100 or more active law enforcement officers from across the nation in order to generate a report on how extensive the problem of excessive use of force might be among police departments nationwide.
Even then, in what was and still is the largest and most comprehensive survey of police misconduct ever performed in the US, that report only gathered statistics from 5% of US law enforcement agencies which represented a little over half of the law enforcement officers in the US at the time.
In that 2002 report it was estimated that only 19% of police departments nationwide had a civilian oversight component that would release annual reports on police misconduct complaints and investigative outcomes for that agency.
Today, in 2009, the numbers are not much improved as a quick review of the largest police departments in the US reveals that only half of the most populous cities in the US have a publicly available police complaint reporting system and only 66 police departments nationwide have a civilian police review component that releases police complaint statistics according to NACOLE.
When we contrast this to the nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies who participate in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting system (UCR) we can estimate that only 0.38% of law enforcement agencies in the US have a registered civilian oversight component that reports on police complaint statistics with any degree of regularity.
Even among the organizations that have publicly available reports on police complaints and disciplinary findings there is a great deal of variance in how reports are handled, how they are investigated, and what information is presented to the public within those reports, as seen below:
|Compiled from each department’s most recent annual report with ten most populated cities listed first.|
As the table above illustrates, reporting standards vary widely from department to department with some equally unpredictable variances in the rate of sustained findings for complaints that skew any possible attempts at finding a mean national average of sustained complaints.
Given that there is no real standard methodology in reporting, let alone a national standard for investigative and auditing methods, it’s clear that using statistics reported by law enforcement agencies would be an unreliable method of determining the extent of police misconduct in the United States.
So, how can we determine what the extent of police misconduct might be in the United States as a whole? The answer is that we currently cannot tell how extensive the problem is and whether it’s getting worse or better.
In fact, there really aren’t any definitive facts available with which we can make any real comparison of police departments in regards to which might be problematic or which ones have a good handle on the problem of police misconduct.
Given this lack of knowledge, it’s little wonder why law enforcement agencies and police organizations continually win their fights against reforms supposedly designed to reduce the rates of police misconduct, it’s because nobody can point to any hard facts that indicate whether or not the problem of police misconduct is any better or worse in any given department.
This lack of information makes it impossible to make any informed decisions about police misconduct policies and legislation, how best to address the needs of police misconduct victims, or even how insurance carriers can make informed decisions on which departments are more at risk for costly litigation due to police misconduct.
Because of this fundamental lack of reliable information, it is truly impossible to have an informed discussion about police misconduct other than to acknowledge that it exists and causes a wide variety of harms on an individual level, economic level, and a societal level overall.
…which is why I’ve created this site and started work towards a National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. While the current methodology is crude, gathering statistics from news reports concerning police misconduct and comparing those to publicly released statistics from law enforcement agencies, it’s the only method we have available to us and, sadly, nobody else is doing anything like it presently.
Hopefully, at some point, we’ll have enough information to start making that informed debate and building policy recommendations based more on fact than speculation. In the end, hopefully this will do more for reducing police misconduct and improving trustworthiness between citizens and those they entrust to enforce the laws we are all governed by, police and citizen alike.