We Found 85,000 Cops Who’ve Been Investigated For Misconduct. Now You Can Read Their Records (#GotBitcoin?)
USA TODAY is leading a national effort to obtain and publish disciplinary and misconduct records for thousands of police officers. We Found 85,000 Cops Who’ve Been Investigated For Misconduct. Now You Can Read Their Records (#GotBitcoin?)
At least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the USA have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past decade, an investigation by USA TODAY Network found.
Officers have beaten members of the public, planted evidence and used their badges to harass women. They have lied, stolen, dealt drugs, driven drunk and abused their spouses.
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.
Reporters from USA TODAY, its 100-plus affiliated newsrooms and the nonprofit Invisible Institute in Chicago have spent more than a year creating the biggest collection of police misconduct records.
Obtained from thousands of state agencies, prosecutors, police departments and sheriffs, the records detail at least 200,000 incidents of alleged misconduct, much of it previously unreported. The records obtained include more than 110,000 internal affairs investigations by hundreds of individual departments and more than 30,000 officers who were decertified by 44 state oversight agencies.
- Most misconduct involves routine infractions, but the records reveal 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.
- Dishonesty is a frequent problem. The records document 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.
- Less than 10% of officers in most police forces get investigated for misconduct. Yet some officers are 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.
The level of oversight varies widely from state to state. Georgia and Florida decertified thousands of police officers for everything from crimes to questions about their fitness to serve; other states banned almost none.
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That includes Maryland, home to the Baltimore Police Department, which regularly has been in the news for criminal behavior by police. Over nearly a decade, Maryland revoked the certifications of just four officers.
We’re Making Those Records Public
The records USA TODAY and its partners gathered include tens of thousands of internal investigations, lawsuit settlements and secret separation deals.
They include names of at least 5,000 police officers whose credibility as witnesses has been called into question. These officers have been placed on Brady lists, created to track officers whose actions must be disclosed to defendants if their testimony is relied upon to prosecute someone.
USA TODAY plans to publish many of those records to give the public an opportunity to examine their police department and the broader issue of police misconduct, as well as to help identify decertified officers who continue to work in law enforcement.
Seth Stoughton, who worked as a police officer for five years and teaches law at the University of South Carolina, said expanding public access to those kinds of records is critical to keep good cops employed and bad cops unemployed.
“No one is in a position to assess whether an officer candidate can do the job well and the way that we expect the job to be done better than the officer’s former employer,” Stoughton said.
“Officers are public servants. They police in our name,” he said. There is a “strong public interest in identifying how officers are using their public authority.”
Dan Hils, president of the Cincinnati Police Department’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Policemen union, said people should consider there are more than 750,000 law enforcement officers in the country when looking at individual misconduct data.
“The scrutiny is way tighter on police officers than most folks, and that’s why sometimes you see high numbers of misconduct cases,” Hils said. “But I believe that policemen tend to be more honest and more trustworthy than the average citizen.”
Hils said he has no issue with USA TODAY publishing public records of conduct, saying it is the news media’s “right and responsibility to investigate police and the authority of government. You’re supposed to be a watchdog.”
The first set of records USA TODAY is releasing is an exclusive nationwide database of about 30,000 people whom state governments banned from the profession by revoking their certification to be law enforcement officers.
For years, a private police organization has assembled such a list from more than 40 states and encourages police agencies to screen new hires. The list is kept secret from anyone outside law enforcement.
USA TODAY obtained the names of banned officers from 44 states by filing requests under state sunshine laws.
The information includes the officers’ names, the department they worked for when the state revoked their certification and – in most cases – the reasons why.
The list is incomplete because of the absence of records from states such as California, which has the largest number of law enforcement officers in the USA.
Bringing Important Facts To Policing Debate
USA TODAY’s collection of police misconduct records comes amid a nationwide debate over law enforcement tactics, including concern that some officers or agencies unfairly target minorities.
A series of killings of black people by police over the past five years in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Chicago, Sacramento, California, and elsewhere have sparked unrest and a reckoning that put pressure on cities and mayors to crack down on misconduct and abuses.
The Trump administration has backed away from more than a decade of Justice Department investigations and court actions against police departments it determined were deeply biased or corrupt.
In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would leave policing the police to local authorities, saying federal investigations hurt crime fighting.
Laurie Robinson, co-chair of the 2014 White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said 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.”
Help Us Investigate
The number of police agencies and officers in the USA is so large that the blind spots are vast. We need your help.
Though the records USA TODAY Network gathered are probably the most expansive ever collected, there is much more to be added. The collection includes several types of statewide data, but most misconduct is documented by individual departments.
Journalists obtained records from more than 700 law enforcement agencies, but the records are not complete for all of those agencies, and there are more than 18,000 police forces across the USA. The records requests were focused largely on the biggest 100 police agencies as well as clusters of smaller departments in surrounding areas, partly to examine movement of officers between departments in regions.
USA TODAY aims to identify other media organizations willing to partner in gathering new records and sharing documents they’ve already gathered. The Invisible Institute, a journalism nonprofit in Chicago focused on police accountability, has done so for more than a year and contributed records from dozens of police departments.
Reporters need help getting documents – and other kinds of tips – from the public, watchdog groups, researchers and even officers and prosecutors themselves.
If you have access to citizen complaints about police, internal affairs investigation records, secret settlement deals between agencies and departing officers or anything that sheds light on how agencies police their officers, we want to hear from you.
Activists Document Police Misconduct Using Decentralized Protocol
Amid roiling protests over the police killing of George Floyd, activist-coders have launched a decentralized protocol to document police misconduct reports, which are usually difficult to obtain. Activists Document Police Misconduct Using Decentralized Protocol
The Police Accountability Now (PAN) Protocol is designed and built on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) and the Ethereum blockchain, so it can’t be shut down by any central entity. The aim is for civilians and police officers to file misconduct reports in an anonymous and searchable way. By giving people anonymity, the organizers hope to give officers a way to break the “blue wall of silence,” or police culture that discourages officers from reporting each other.
“This protocol is meant to enable anyone to create a gateway/front end and let anyone log complaints. If a police officer wishes to report misconduct anonymously, that is better for everyone because, as I understand it, police are supposed to serve their communities and reporting the misdeeds of their colleagues is part of that service,” said the creator of the PAN protocol, who preferred not to give his real name but identified himself by the pseudonym Fred Hampton. (Fred Hamptonwas a Black Panther activist who was killed by law enforcement in 1969.)
Hampton said the idea for the protocol came about because, as a Black man in America, he’d personally had to deal with police misconduct from a very early age and had an intimate relationship with the problem.
Last Tuesday, the protocol launched on the Kovan testnet, a public Ethereum blockchain, covering police departments in the 50 most populous U.S. cities. It includes links to policies and procedures as well as department logos, with more information to come. The project asks users to file Freedom of Information Law requests to get officers’ names, badge numbers and other details to help populate the database.
Police misconduct reports are hard to obtain for journalists, much less members of the public. Reports are rarely seen by people outside of the police department, and police unions have actively worked to put in place protections that make records hard to access. Some are even destroyed after a certain amount of time has lapsed. USA Today, in a recent expose, found 85,000 cops who had been investigated for misconduct in the last decade.
A project from WNYC, a New York City public radio station, found records are confidential in 23 states; another 15 provide limited accessibility. Only 12 states make the records public.
Hampton said projects like the Chicago Reporter’s tracking of misconduct settlements are an after-the-fact documentation of the misconduct. And initiatives like the ACLU’s apps to record police misconduct are not comprehensive.
“The goal with PAN protocol is to have an unstoppable database that is fully transparent and searchable. Anyone, such as police departments that wish to follow the latest executive order or local press, can monitor the chain for reports against their local department and act accordingly,” said Hampton in an email.
While some may question the need for a decentralized approach, a previous example of monitoring police misconduct demonstrates why it may well be a necessity. A website launched in 2008 called RateMyCop acted as a review board for thousands of cops across the U.S. When it launched, it contained the names of over 140,000 police officers from more than 500 police departments across the United States. Akin to Yelp, it let users rate and leave reviews on cops.
“Having a website like that puts a lot of law enforcement, in my eyes, in danger because it exposes us out there,” an officer told ABC at the time. The website did not list the identity of any undercover officers, nor did it contain information like home addresses.
“The goal with PAN protocol is to have an unstoppable database that is fully transparent and searchable.”
A few weeks later, the website’s hosting company, GoDaddy, shut it down for “suspicious activity.” The project bounced between other hosting companies, but eventually shut down in 2015. A decentralized protocol would’ve stopped GoDaddy from being able to unilaterally take the website down.
“Essentially what you’re doing with a website like this is you’re providing an additional disincentive for officers to engage in this conduct,” said Paul Hirschfield, a sociology professor at Rutgers University who is studying the social, political, and legal dynamics that explain why on-duty police violence rarely leads to criminal charges.
“This is potentially more organized than something like YouTube. It’s saying we could put a whole sort of dossier together on you and if there is a pattern of behavior it would be exposed.”
But he is concerned about the anonymity of people filing the reports though and the potential for people to make false reports . As it stands today, there is no mechanism to verify or verify reports posted.
“We leave vetting and verifying as an exercise to the reader,” said Hampton. “We highly encourage someone to build a follow on adjudication process/protocol that verifies/vets any claim put into the database.”
Such are the benefits and pitfalls of a decentralized protocol.
There are also technical barriers to use that users would need to be overcome. The protocol lays out step by step instructions on how to access and post to the protocol on it’s website. Doing so involves getting a privacy protecting email address such as Protonmail, signing up for a free github account, claiming some free kETH, and if possible, use a VPN, or virtual private network.
Hampton said he hopes that other people build on this protocol, making it easier for anyone to log complaints.
“I’d recommend that they read the instructions carefully and do their best to educate themselves on the associated technologies before proceeding,” said Hampton. “Luckily no real money is at stake for them to report.”
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