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Putting Police Records in the Public View in Chicago

A new database makes police misconduct records in Chicago public and searchable.
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The last few years have seen a steady state of protest over police misbehavior, and, more generally, a mistrust between the public and law enforcement. Two-thirds of Americans believe that police departments aren't holding officers accountable for misconduct, a suspicion that appears to be greatest among city-dwelling minorities: Only a quarter of urban blacks have confidence in the police, according to Gallup poll data. That skepticism may be at least in part due to the informational divide that exists between the police and the public they're charged to protect: Misconduct records are confidential or have limited availability in all but 12 states, according to WNYC.

A new project in Chicago aims to bridge that rift: This week, the Invisible Institute and the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School launched an interactive tool designed to make allegations of police misconduct in the Windy City both public and searchable. The online database—called the Citizens Police Data Project—is populated by files obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and civil rights litigation, plus four years of data supplied directly from the Chicago Police Department. It's a move by the police department that goes against the current tides against transparency. And Illinois is not one of those dozen states where records are public; when the CPD tried to turn over records dating all the way back to 1967, the police union sued to block the release of all but the most recent four years of data.

Still, a lot can still be gleaned from the database:

  • More than 28,500 misconduct allegations were filed against officers in the CPD between March 2011 and September 2015, and officers were disciplined in less than two percent of those cases.
  • About 30 percent of all the complaints—more than 16,900 cases—could be traced back to just 10 percent of CPD officers.
  • The two officers tied for the most allegations each had 68 complaints to their names. One of them was reprimanded; the other was not disciplined at all.
  • Of the 56,361 total allegations in the database, only seven resulted in the officers being let go, two of whom were women. Out of the six cases in which the complaining witness was identified, five of them were white males.
  • Each of the officers that were terminated had two or fewer complaints against them—and that's not out of line with punishment patterns. Complaints against officers with multiple complaints against them were less likely to be found to be "sustained" by the department.
  • Administrative violations received average punishments of 16.5 days. The average punishment for officers found guilty of rape or other sex offenses was six days.

It's true that not every single one of the 56,361 complaints in the database warrant punishments for the officers involved, but the relative lack of sanctions for the accused—especially in cases where the complainants were minorities—is troubling. Unfortunately, disciplinary action doesn't always work as a deterrent. Last year, Lauren Kirchner reported on a long-term study of police behavior:

[I]t appears that the officers who received the most severe punishments were more likely to be accused of misconduct later, and to do so sooner. This could be because the punishments simply weren't working, and the bad apples kept being bad, but then again, the authors only looked at officers who had complaints filed against them—some of whom were punished, and the others of whom were not. Or, it could be that officers who get in trouble tend to be under greater scrutiny from their superiors in the following weeks and months. But, most troublingly, it could also be that the punishment actually damages the officers' attitudes toward their jobs—that “the perceived injustice of the disciplinary system may actually promote officer deviance.”

More oversight, on the other hand, can make a difference. Research shows that body cameras can keep officers in line, reducing their use of force and complaints against officers in jurisdictions where cameras have already been deployed. And public scrutiny of police misconduct records, as is possible with databases like the one launched earlier this week, may also help hold police departments accountable.