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Criminal Cops: Tracking Crimes Committed by Police Officers

by Christopher Zoukis

Police officers are sworn to uphold the law. When the uniform goes on, they become arbiters and enforcers of right and wrong. But a new police crime database reveals an important and often overlooked aspect of the job: Police officers are people first, cops second. And people sometimes commit crimes.

The database, compiled by Philip Stinson, tracks how often police officers are arrested. Stinson, a former cop and now an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, gathered data on arrests of police officers from 2005 to 2012. Stinson’s data are limited to 2,830 state, local, and special law enforcement agencies out of about 18,000 across the country, but nevertheless provide valuable insights. Police crime is not as rare as the average person might think.

According to Vice News, Stinson’s data show 8,006 arrest incidents resulting in 13,623 charges involving 6,596 police officers from 2005 through 2012. Nearly half of the incidents were violent. Because Stinson’s data cover fewer than 20 percent of all law enforcement agencies and just a fraction of the 1.1 million sworn officers in the U.S., the actual number of arrests is undoubtedly much higher.

Without efforts by researchers such as Stinson, however, we might never know. That’s because the federal government does not collect this kind of data. Were the government to track crimes committed by police officers, it would rely heavily on self-reporting by police agencies. James Lynch, a former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and now professor at the University of Maryland, told Vice News that there would be an obvious problem with that method.

“You’re asking the police to tell you about the sins of their workplace,” said Lynch. “I suspect that they wouldn’t expect high levels of compliance. The data quality would not be good.”

Stinson and his team avoid this problem by gathering data from media reports and court records. Google alerts lead researchers to new incidents and help them track the status of existing arrests. It is not a foolproof system, acknowledged Lynch, but it is “legitimate.” Jonathan Blanks, who heads the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, told Vice News that Stinson’s methods would not collect all misconduct by police, but that it was an important step forward.

“While imperfect, tracking misconduct like this is a public service to try to hold police accountable to the public they serve,” said Blanks.

Stinson’s methodology is evolving, but as it currently stands, the data show about 1,000 officer arrests per year. The most common arrest was for simple assault, with driving while intoxicated a close second. Other charges in the top 10 include drug violations, aggravated assault, and forcible rape. Rookie cops were arrested more often than veterans, and over 10 percent of the officers in the dataset were arrested more than once.

Stinson also tracked whether arrested officers lost their jobs. Of those determined to have been convicted, 91 percent were fired. But for all arrested officers, Stinson concluded that they lost their jobs just over half of the time. Stinson told Vice News that he was taken aback by these numbers.

“I always assumed that if an officer gets arrested, their career was over,” said Stinson. “What we’re seeing is that this is not the case. Many of these officers don’t get convicted, and many of them who actually leave their job, lose it, or quit, end up working as police officers elsewhere. So there’s a sort of officer shuffle that goes on.”

One major shortcoming, acknowledged by Stinson himself, is that as a measure of the number of crimes committed by cops, the data are necessarily incomplete. That’s because police officers provide each other with “professional courtesy” in many interactions. Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and longtime San Diego police officer, agreed that this has been a problem in police departments for many years, but he believes that professional courtesy is going the way of the dinosaur.

“It [has been] understood that when you stopped a police officer off-duty, if you rolled up to his home on a domestic violence call, you would extend professional courtesy,” Stamper told Vice News. “Over time many police departments have corrected that; they’ve come to the realization that it doesn’t just look bad—it is bad.”

Stinson told Vice News that his intention was not to criticize law enforcement. Instead, he hoped to highlight police misconduct as a serious, systemic problem that is not uncommon and demands attention.

“What [people] don’t realize is that this shit is happening in communities across the country every day,” Stinson said. 


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