Twelve years ago, a criminal justice master’s student named Philip Stinson got into an argument with his grad school classmates about how often police officers committed crimes. His peers, many of whom were cops themselves, thought police crime was rare, but Stinson, himself a former cop and attorney, thought the problem was bigger than anyone knew. He bet a pint of ale that he could prove it.
In recent years, news coverage has been saturated with reports of police shootings and abuses of power. Until the relatively recent rise of citizen’s journalism, the infallible public perception of cops was defined by a lack of information. The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database takes the idea of policing the police a step further, shining a light on police misconduct around the country. It’s something Philip Stinson began working on 13-years-ago as a graduate student and has continued to build on as a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“We’re trying to make the information available to give people an understanding of the problem in their own communities,” Stinson says.The database uses 270 unique variables to categorize and analyze crimes committed by police officers around the country. And at 1,100 cases a year, that’s a whole lot of crime.
The database, which only displays crimes for which an officer was arrested – not alleged crimes – shows that the highest rate of crime was among assault charges followed by a surprising number of substance abuse related cases. The longitudinal nature of the database – which displays its data using a heat map – offers a time-lapse image of the opioid epidemic spreading across the country from 2005 to 2012.
officers were arrested for sex-related crimes from 2005 through 2012.
More than half of the alleged victims were underage — 17 or younger.
The most common sex crime was “forcible fondling” (388 cases), followed by “forcible rape” (355 cases).
17 percent of the officers arrested for sex crimes (213 cops total) were charged in multiple sex-related cases, meaning they were either repeat offenders or had multiple victims.
drug-related arrests occur in the data from 2005 through 2012.
227 of these involved more than one drug.
The most common drugs involved in these cases were cocaine (251 charges), marijuana (202 charges), and the prescription opioid oxycodone (110 charges).
Opioid-related charges increased from 2005 through 2012, but the sample size is small: There were just 11 arrests involving opioids in 2005, which grew to 55 by 2012, driven largely by the prescription painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Drug violations are by far the most common arrest category among U.S. civilians. In 2012 alone, there were more than 1.5 million arrests for drug violations. Cops, on the other hand, are much less likely to be arrested for abusing or possessing drugs. Jonathan Blanks, who heads the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, said the difference may have to do with the fact that most law enforcement agencies regularly screen their employees for drug use, so fewer officers use drugs than their civilian counterparts.
of the arrest cases involved charges for “official misconduct,” “official oppression” (a fancy way to say abuse of power), or violation of oath. Because doing anything illegal is a violation of the police code of conduct, these charges often get tacked on to other offenses. “It’s thrown in with the kitchen sink,” Stinson said. These were the most serious offenses charged in only 15 cases.
When it comes to drunk driving and drug offenses, Stinson points out that most of these cases go unreported unless it was something that couldn’t be ignored. For example, if an officer was driving drunk and hit something like a telephone pole. In this case, a staggering 15% of drunk driving cases were cases of hit-and-run, while 10% are drunk driving while on duty.
Not all of the variables are made publicly available, including officers’ names, but Stinson says it’s not something that would be difficult to figure out. Much of the information is publicly available through the court records, and news reports Stinson and his team have aggregated to create the database.
It’s a grueling process that can be very time consuming for the professor and his team of 15 researchers. The database displays 13,000 arrest cases from 2005 to as recent as this week, but the information that is currently available only shows cases up to 2012 because the team has to comb meticulously through every case and follow them all the way through to the appeals process.
The project is still in its early stages, having only launched in September, but Stinson and his team are now starting to go back and look at certain patterns including crimes committed over individual officers’ careers.
One thing that surprised Stinson were spikes in arrests during later years of service running counter to previous research which suggested that younger officers were more likely to engage in misconduct. At least 15% of the cases in the database was an officer arrested within three years of retirement eligibility.
Another thing that stuck out for Stinson and his team was the number of officers who remained on the job after they had been arrested. “We were surprised to see that some officers find their way back into our database time and again,” He said, “we’re surprised they still have a job.”
Of 3,400 officers that had been arrested and either convicted, they found that 10% were working in law enforcement again – some even in the same county or not far from where they originally served.
In one such case, a Florida officer charged with fraud – for which the victim was her grandmother – was discovered working as a deputy sheriff in Richmond, Virginia. When confronted, her new employers knew nothing of her arrest in Florida while her previous employers thought she had been decertified.
This is one area in which the government has left a giant gap in statistics; neither collecting nor analyzing data on police crime. However, it may be a better alternative that ensures police are monitored by an independent watchdog.
“There have been problems with law enforcement agencies across the country in terms of reporting things to the FBI just for uniform crime report statistics.” Stinson says, emphasizing that there are verified accounts in which officers have ‘cooked the books.’
“There’s the old joke,” Stinson recalls, “of reclassifying a rapist for a traffic offense of following too closely, which isn’t funny, but there are all kinds of problems with self-reporting for law enforcement agencies.”
As might be expected, some have criticized Stinson for stoking anti-police sentiment, and his critics have made their opposition clear even contacting him to air their grievances. But Stinson, a former cop, insists that his database was created with the well-being of police in mind.
“We are interested in promoting police integrity and improving policing,” He insists, “we want to improve the lives of police officers and their families.”
The database has caught the attention of at least a few law enforcement agencies. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics is now adopting his strategy of analyzing Google news reports for cases of police crime.
But there are certain drawbacks to relying on these news reports, namely the rare issue of misreported cases. Shortly after launching the database Stinson was accused of fabricating the whole database because of an error in which the age of the officer in question had been changed in the initial Associated Press report from 2005.
When Stinson retraced his steps for that case, he found that the critic who flagged the case as fake couldn’t find any record of it because the officer had been acquitted and the court records had been expunged. This is one reason the team is constantly going back and updating cases and why it’s important that they track each case in real time. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than the total lack of information that preceded it.
“We aren’t capturing every case,” Stinson admits, “but we certainly are capturing the phenomenon of police crime and learning more about it.”
But Stinson also thinks that law enforcement officers don’t receive adequate support to cope with the stresses of the job — and that can cause some of them to turn to crime. Stinson doesn’t want the public, or police, to come away from the database thinking that it’s inherently critical of law enforcement — that was never his intention. He hopes that it might offer an opportunity for introspection among officers and even spotlight cops’ need for improved support.