What Can We Learn From Criminal Complaints Against Cops?

I recently had a call from a reporter, Lisa Miller from NPR affiliate 90.7 WFAE in Charlotte North Carolina, who was interested in finding out how many police officers were charged with a criminal offense in 2009.  This question was prompted by a recent case involving an officer now facing numerous charges for allegedly sexually assaulting at least 6 women while on-duty.

Of course, as I constantly mention as my reason for starting this project, she had difficulty finding any data because, well, there isn’t anyone tracking it… well, aside from us. But, in the process of looking for it, she came across our site and I, of course, was happy to give her our statistics in that regard. Though, of course, with the usual disclaimer that those numbers are only for the months of April – December of 2009 since the NPMSRP didn’t start until April 2009 and, beyond that, are likely a low-ball estimate of what actually occurs.

Whether or not what she was researching actually makes it into her report, I thought it might be worthwhile to delve into those numbers a bit deeper in case anyone else was interested in the separation between criminal activity by police and police misconduct in general.

As readers of our 2009 Preliminary Police Misconduct Statistical Report already know, in our 2009 reporting period we determined that 4,012 law enforcement officers were involved in reported instances of police misconduct. Of those, 1,363 were criminally charged and of those, 92 were people in law enforcement leadership roles (i.e. sheriffs and police chiefs).

Now, when breaking down the difference between charges vs reports in our reporting period for 2009 we see the following:
Chrg V RepWe see that financial crimes (fraud, theft, extortion, embezzlement, etc) are prosecuted most often at 69.4% of reports while, interestingly, violent crimes tend to be the least often prosecuted at 24.1% despite being the most often reported type of misconduct.

I believe this is most likely because allegations of excessive force are exceptionally difficult to prosecute as they are often argued as justified within policy and that argument is difficult to beat without actual video evidence, and even then is still difficult to win. So prosecutors tend to go after those case less often.

This is, at least, what the data appears to suggest when we delve deeper and segment on-duty and off-duty violent crimes:
OnV V OffVAs you can see, on-duty violence is only prosecuted 9.6% of the time while off-duty violence is prosecuted 66.7% of the time. Again, indicative of the reluctance of prosecutors to persue allegations of on-duty related use of force incidents.

When we look at the results of criminal justice actions taken against law enforcement we see that financial crimes tend to result in the highest conviction rate while, surprisingly, drug and alcohol related charges tend to have the lowest rate of success.
Chrg V ConThe reason for difficulties in the drugs/alcohol category appears to be with DUI type cases as police officers tend to be very proficient on how best to defend against that type of case. Law enforcement officers tend to refuse to take BAC tests and, as in the news recently, officers tend to be unwilling to charge fellow officers in traffic stop situations due to the stigmas attached to “ratting out” fellow offices.

Finally, when we do a comparison between how law enforcement officers are treated when they are on the other side of the law and how the general public is treated we see quite a few discrepancies that appear to indicate a real bias in favor of law enforcement officers in the criminal justice system.
GenPop V LEOPopAs a note for this graph, Conviction Rates and Incarceration Rates are percentages while Average Sentence length is the number of months a person is sentenced to when convicted. Also, the Incarceration Rate is the percentage of time a conviction results in incarceration compared to probation or alternative sentences.

With all this said, though, it’s important to understand that when we do make a distinction between police misconduct and police criminality that there sometimes isn’t a very distinct line between behaviors that distinguish one from the other.

For example, a police officer found to have used excessive force on a detainee may face internal disciplinary action but may not face criminal charges while a police officer in a different agency might. It’s usually at the discretion of a prosecutor or even the police department itself whether to remand a case for criminal charges or not.

So, realistically, we shouldn’t use whether or not a police officer was charged with a crime to make any definitive judgments on criminal behavior by law enforcement because that’s not all that the numbers tell us. Although, it can tell us about the biases built into our justice system as the ratio between charged and non-charged misconduct might tell us how often laws are actually enforced against law enforcement officers themselves and how transparent that process is in comparison to how the criminal justice system applies to regular citizens.

Ultimately, though, what charging data shows us is a rather complex picture. For example, is a high number of police officers charged with crimes from one department indicative of corruption? Not necessarily. After all, police misconduct will always happen, there’s no avoiding it so long as human beings are police officers. So a high number of criminal cases by itself may be a sign of good accountability, or a potential problem.

The type of data that we do need to look at, though, is how an agency’s prosecution rate, disciplinary rate, allegation rate, and conviction rates stack up together versus a national normative average. This kind of complex comparison will give us more information about what the numbers might mean and more insight into how effective our nation is at holding police accountable when they end up on the other side of the law…

Unfortunately, we don’t have all that data yet, but it’s something that we are still working on. Given time, we may be able to have a clearer picture not only of the average reporting and criminal charge data for law enforcement, but put more meaning behind those numbers to determine if a given agency has a problem.

This is one reason we hope to continue on with this project, to get a more realistic and useful measure of police misconduct in the US so that we can use that as a baseline with which to compare different agencies and identify underlying problems.

Without that information… we’re just left to guess at it in the dark, just like Lisa was.