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A four-year investigation into police records by USA Today has revealed shocking findings: within just ten years, over 85,000 police have been investigated or disciplined for crimes like beating civilians, planting evidence, dealing drugs, drunk driving, theft, spouse abuse and lying. This is the most extensive collection of American police misconduct records to date, gathered from state agencies, prosecutors, police departments and sheriffs, including 110,000 internal affairs investigations by hundreds of individual departments and over 200,000 documented incidents - most undisclosed to the public.
USA Today began gathering records in 2016 amid national furor over police murders of black Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Chicago, Sacramento, California, and elsewhere, and concerns that police were disproportionately targeting minorities and using violence against them.
These records focus upon just the largest 100 police agencies and surrounding smaller departments, from approximately 700 agencies, and are incomplete, while there are over 18,000 police forces nationwide. Particularly important is the lack of records from states like California, with the largest police force in the country. Oakland police in particular have a history of egregious and disproportionate violence toward citizens, including planting a live bomb in the car of activist Judy Barr, an act that cost the department and the FBI $4.4 million in settlements.
Among USA Today's findings: out of 85,000 documented cases of misconduct, about 30,000 officers were "decertified", meaning they are permanently barred from working in law enforcement. The records also contain lawsuit settlements and previously secret deals going as far back as the 1960s.
With tens of millions of citizens around the world protesting police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's shocking and callous murder, public calls for accountability are mounting, and this information is critical to effecting permanent and meaningful reforms.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was arrested by Minneapolis police on May 25, after a convenience store clerk called 911 and reported that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Four police showed up, and three pinned Floyd to the ground, with former officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck until the victim died of asphyxiation. Though the four officers were fired and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, protests have swelled far beyond the borders of the country because people recognize an entrenched systemic, brutal and ongoing policy of racial discrimination and violence.
The NY Times has documented the events leading up to Floyd's death here:
In his eulogy at Floyd's funeral last week, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton pointed out "Until the law is upheld and people know they will go to jail they're going to keep doing it, because they're protected by wickedness in high places."
Chauvin, for instance, racked up 17 misconduct complaints before murdering Floyd. Only one resulted in discipline -- in the form of two letters of reprimand. The city's online database of misconduct complaints offers no details about the underlying allegations.
John Kelly and Mark Nichols report that "Despite their role as public servants, the men and women who swear an oath to keep communities safe can generally avoid public scrutiny for their misdeeds. The records of their misconduct are filed away, rarely seen by anyone outside their departments. Police unions and their political allies have worked to put special protections in place ensuring some records are shielded from public view, or even destroyed."
They note that the majority of cases were "routine infractions", but that there were also "...tens of thousands of cases of serious misconduct and abuse. They include 22,924 investigations of officers using excessive force, 3,145 allegations of rape, child molestation and other sexual misconduct and 2,307 cases of domestic violence by officers."
The litany of cop crimes continues, including "...at least 2,227 instances of perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses or falsifying reports. There were 418 reports of officers obstructing investigations, most often when they or someone they knew were targets." And, of course, these are only the incidents which were documented and preserved.
It's important to note that the vast majority of police are not tainted by crime or scandal - USA Today reports that less than 10% are investigated for misconduct, but also points out that those who have been are repeat offenders "...consistently under investigation. Nearly 2,500 have been investigated on 10 or more charges. Twenty faced 100 or more allegations yet kept their badge for years."
However, Cincinnati Police union president Dan Hills cautions against painting all cops with a broad brush, pointing out that there are over 750,000 in America, and the high number of misconduct cases is at least partly attributable to the higher level of scrutiny to which they're subjected.
“But I believe that policemen tend to be more honest and more trustworthy than the average citizen,” he adds.
USA Today has made its database publicly-accessible, searchable by officer, department or state:
University of South Carolina law professor and police veteran Seth Stoughton emphasizes that public access to this information is vital "...to keep good cops employed and bad cops unemployed".
White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing co-chair Laurie Robinson concurs, adding that "...such transparency about police conduct is critical to trust between police and residents.".
“It’s about the people who you have hired to protect you,” she said. “Traditionally, we would say for sure that policing has not been a transparent entity in the U.S. Transparency is just a very key step along the way to repairing our relationships."
In the late 1980s, Former Minneapolis civil rights deputy director Gary Cunningham helped form a civilian review panel to investigate police misconduct, with subpoena powers to compel officer testimony and make disciplinary recommendations, but he says the police union hobbled its subpoena power, crippling any meaningful effects it may have had and allowing officers to evade court testimony.
In 2018, the Trump Administration further damaged ongoing reform efforts, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring the Department of Justice "...would leave policing the police to local authorities", adding "...federal investigations hurt crime fighting".
However, last week Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (D) took steps toward once again addressing the problem, proposing a number of reforms that include an open federal database of police officers with histories of inappropriate force or discrimination.
In the meantime, USA Today is urging members of the public to assist in gathering information:
"We want to hear from you if you believe you’ve encountered misconduct by a law enforcement officer or agency. You can send tips and records about an officer or agency to firstname.lastname@example.org".