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Tracking the Prevalence of Police Crime

by David Reutter

“Americans actually have no idea” how often police use force, former FBI director James Comey said in 2016. They also have no inkling how often police officers commit a crime. The reason for that is the federal government does not track such activity.

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics collects information on practically every aspect of the criminal justice system, but it has never recorded the criminal statistics of police officers or tracked how often they use force upon citizens while on duty. The issue was perceived as no big concern prior to the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

Prior to that event, police crime was viewed as rare. Increased scrutiny following Brown’s death and cellphone cameras that have captured police officers using unjustified force have changed the public’s perspective.

Still, the government lacks information to quantify the problem. A Bowling Green University associate professor of criminal justice professor, who was once a police officer, has been collecting information in a database since 2005 to put numbers on the issue. Joshua Lott has his student research assistants use media reports and court records to track incidents and outcomes to record what, if any, consequences the officers faced.

According to an article written by Lott and published in The Atlantic, more than 900 officers are arrested each year. Of those, 60 percent occur while the officer is off duty.

Between 2005 and 2013, there were 5,475 cases involving officers arrested for off-duty crimes. That number includes the cases where the same officer was arrested more than once.

The majority of those crimes, 52 percent, were violent and 42 percent were alcohol related.

In that period, 56 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter during an off-duty incident, resulting in a conviction in 41 or 73 percent.

Also during that time, 41 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter while on duty. Only 21, or 51 percent, of those cases resulted in a conviction.

“Off-duty police officers commonly carry a handgun, so perhaps it’s not surprising that a significant number of the cases in my database (11 percent) involve an officer who used a firearm in the commission of an off-duty crime,” Lott wrote.

He said his experience as a police officer exposed him to police culture, which has an “us-versus-them mentality: everyone but ‘us’ is a potential threat.” They often feel untouchable, for as one prominent policing scholar once wrote, “law enforcement is exempt from law enforcement.” Until we track the prevalence of police crime to prove it is a problem that deserves rectification, that mentality will continue to prevail. 




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