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Abusive Behavior May Be Contagious Among Police

New research on the Chicago Police Department finds that working with fellow cops who have been accused of excess force increases the odds that an officer will face similar charges later on.
Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony in the Grand Ballroom on Navy Pier on June 15th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony in the Grand Ballroom on Navy Pier on June 15th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. Several civil rights organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago seeking federal oversight of changes in the Chicago Police Department following repeated accusations of civil rights violations by officers in the department.

Bad behavior can be contagious. Research has found evidence of this dangerous dynamic in both businesses and families. Now, a new study suggests it may also be true for police officers.

An analysis of officers in the Chicago Police Department finds that those who worked with colleagues who had been formally accused of using excessive force were more likely to be named in subsequent complaints involving similar behavior.

"Officers' peers may serve as social conduits through which misconduct is learned and transmitted," Northwestern University sociologist Andrew Papachristos, the study's senior author, said in announcing the findings. "Temporarily removing officers named in complaints of this kind from the field until problematic behaviors are addressed might limit the negative consequences of exposure."

The study, in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, analyzed formal complaints filed with the CPD from 2007 through 2015—data obtained and collected by the non-profit Invisible Institute. More than 30,000 complaints featuring 11,686 officers were tallied; the research team, led by Marie Ouellet of Georgia State University, focused on the 8,624 officers named in more than one complaint.

Use-of-force complaints were those that involved a firearm or stun gun or "unnecessary physical contact," or resulted in injury or death.

The researchers examined "each officer's misconduct network—all other officers accused of misconduct with the officer—across their history of complaints." This allowed the team to trace how this rule-breaking behavior spreads.

They found that accused officers who had a higher percentage of colleagues who'd been named in previous use-of-force complaints were more likely to be named in subsequent accusations.

The researchers couldn't definitively say what drives this dynamic, but they offer some plausible ideas.

"We argue that not only do police officers learn patterns of deviance through their colleagues, but that these networks alter the perception of informal and formal risks associated with misconduct, thereby neutralizing behaviors that otherwise would be considered deviant, or against academy-learned theory and training," they write.

"The likelihood of being sanctioned, even from formal bodies or informally through your peers, may be reduced (or perceived to be reduced) in situations in which officers are surrounded by a larger proportion of officers who have previously engaged in deviant behavior. Rather than being shunned for inappropriate behavior, engaging in similar behaviors may increase solidarity and loyalty between officers."

The findings have several obvious policy implications. First, they suggest that getting accused officers off the street "until problematic behaviors are addressed" will greatly limit their ability to influence younger, impressionable peers.

Additionally, "departments might also want to limit the numbers of officers with histories of use-of-force complaints from working as partners in the same unit," they add.

And given that "being paired with a larger proportion of female officers had a negative and statistically significant impact on an officer's likelihood of receiving use-of-force complaints," serious efforts to add more women to the force could decrease the rate of these incidents.

The main takeaway, however, is that police misconduct isn't fundamentally a matter of individual troubled or angry cops. As Papachristos told Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ: "Deviance and delinquency is group behavior, and the same is true with police."