Justice Watch: We Don’t Know How Deep Police Misconduct Goes

Photo Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

The Washington Post reported this week that FBI Director James Comey said we have no idea if there is “an epidemic of police violence against black people.”  He “told a gathering of police chiefs that despite a wave of protests prompted by fatal police shootings of black men and boys, ‘Americans actually have no idea’ about how often police use force because nobody has collected enough data.”

“It is a narrative that has formed, in the absence of good information and in the absence of actual data, and it is this: Biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates,” Comey told the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) on Sunday at the group’s annual conference in San Diego. “That is the narrative. It is a narrative driven by video images of real misconduct, possible misconduct, and perceived misconduct.”

He added that, in the absence of better data, Americans who see such videos “over and over and over again” take them as “further proof of nationwide police brutality.”

He linked those videos and unrest to increasing homicide numbers in some major cities.

“In a nation of almost a million law enforcement officers and tens of millions of police encounters each year, a small group of videos serve as proof of an epidemic,” he said.

At that same time Mr. Comey delivered those remarks, we got a taste of just how far back that data might look like.  The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the Invisible Institute, a local journalism nonprofit, filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the information in 2014 on police misconduct complaints.

The findings should be stunning.  There were 125,000 complaints against Chicago police officers since 1967.  Of these, nearly 90 percent were deemed either unfounded or lacked sufficient evidence.  In the few instances where complaints were sustained, “firing officers was exceedingly rare, happening in about one-half of 1 percent of cases.”

There was a small group of officers that amassed more than 100 complaints in their careers.  Seven officers fall into that category, “including notoriously corrupt cops who wound up in prison but also others whose allegations of repeated wrongdoing were never before made public,” according to the Tribune.

Another 62 officers amassed at least 70 complaints.  About one-third of all police officers had at least 10 complaints.  But half had five complaints or fewer.  It is important to recognize: “The data don’t count how many officers on the force never had a complaint against them.”

The Tribune noted: “The sheer number of complaints shocked even some civil rights attorneys who’ve long criticized the department for a broken disciplinary system.”

“Most Chicago police officers don’t get more than five (complaints) in an entire career,” attorney Jon Loevy told the Tribune on Thursday. “If the Police Department is truly interested in identifying the problem officers, then the clusters of complaints seem to be the obvious place to look.”

The release of data from Chicago illustrates the point that the FBI Director was making – we lack the data to know how much of a problem this really is.

On Monday, Terrence Cunningham, who heads up the IACP, apologized to minorities for past mistreatment by the police that has helped to fuel mistrust between law enforcement and black and Hispanic communities.

The New York Times noted, “The remarks were an unusual yet symbolic step by law enforcement, whose members have often denied responsibility for deteriorating relationships with the communities they serve.”

For law enforcement officials to regain the trust of minorities, they must begin “to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color,” said Chief Cunningham, who is also police chief in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

The comments were met with both praise and criticism.

The Times notes that “the organization has resisted recent efforts for change, and it refused to agree to proposals that would encourage officers to use less force — including deadly force — when confronting suspects.”

In his remarks, Cunningham noted that racially biased federal, state and local laws had made police officers “the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens,” including “ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.”

He added, however, that police critics “must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past.”

However, critics accused the chief of undercutting his message “by failing to recognize racism among present-day police forces.”

“Police racism is not just a relic of history. Until police leaders acknowledge that bias is a problem right now, they will not have earned the confidence of communities of color,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Chief Cunningham wrote in an email after his speech: “Too many lives have been lost already, and this must end. It is my hope that many other law enforcement executives will deliver this same message to their local communities, particularly those segments of their communities that lack trust and feel disenfranchised.”

The chief also earned criticism from police groups believing his words “were an unfair criticism of officers, who are working in one of the most difficult periods in police-community relations in recent history.”

“Such appeasement of the violent anti-police movement is just one more nail in the coffin of American law enforcement,” said William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. “The people who support American police officers aren’t looking for an apology. And for the people who hate the police, it won’t make any difference.”

David A. Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, has written about police accountability.  “It has been a long time coming,” he said. “It might not be enough, but at least it represents an openness to understanding that the police have been at the tip of the spear in discriminatory policies.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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60 thoughts on “Justice Watch: We Don’t Know How Deep Police Misconduct Goes”

  1. Marina Kalugin

    the police violence against ALL people is totally out of control….

    I had my eyes opened in the 60s….having recently arrived from a way better south american country….and marched with my black friends in SF…

    Nowadays, I would even recommend that if someone of any race or age  is innocent and is stopped, that your chances are better to remain alive by running….otherwise one’s life can be lost forevermore.

    Everyone should be wearing a go pro while driving….and even walking ….

    I would highly recommend some books and groups and lists to join to get info on how to protect yourself…. but be careful, if you join those groups or buy those books you will be watched 24/7.

    For one of the best, and as a start, google Jason Hanson….and get his book….urgent info in these times.

    Also, sign up for Laissez Faire….it is an email list

    Good luck everyone   ….



    1. Barack Palin

      Really?  Biddlin, who I rarely agree with, and I both think it’s stupid to advise someone to run when stopped by police and our posts get deleted?

      [moderator] They’re not deleted, they’re in pending because the post you were responding to is also in pending, subject to review. Please stop discussing moderation action on the Vanguard.

    2. quielo

      “I would even recommend that if someone of any race or age  is innocent and is stopped, that your chances are better to remain alive by running….otherwise one’s life can be lost forevermore.” Very good advice! I would also note that David G is rumoured to be linked to Aum Shinrikyo. If you see David in a enclosed space I would flee to avoid sarin gas poisoning.

  2. Biddlin

    “Nowadays, I would even recommend that if someone of any race or age  is innocent and is stopped, that your chances are better to remain alive by running….otherwise one’s life can be lost forevermore.”

    I’d push the report comment button, but MK is immune.

      1. Davis Progressive

        unfortunately the minority communities especially do not trust the police to take them into custody.  with data like this just starting to emerge we are starting to understand why.

  3. Frankly

    We don’t know how deep police misconduct goes so it is just as likely that it is shallow.

    However, we do know how deep criminal misconduct goes, and it is deep.  Very deep.

  4. Davis Progressive

    whenever we hear about these cases, the defense is always – these are rare occurrences.  125,000 complaints is not a rare occurrence.  that’s just in one city.  that is 2500 complaints a year.  that’s nearly 7 complaints A DAY for a 50 year period.

    one thing we don’t know is how many officers had no complaints, but what we do know is that a huge percentage had at least five.  that’s a lot of complaints.

    and then there will be the defense that 90 percent of complaints were unfounded, but that’s misleading.  a lot of those there simply is not enough evidence either way.  moreover, there is a faulty oversight system.  AND most importantly, these guys with 70 complaints or 100 complaints, you think they are really all BS?  come on.

    the only real question is whether chicago is an aberration or typical.  maybe we now have some insight on why the murder rate is so high there.

    1. talexander555

      Many people are automatically charged with 148.3 PC for making a complaint.   Its typically right there on complaint forms.   “Anyone making a false complaint vs a police officer is guilty of 148.3PC”

      Given that the complain process in most departments is a universal”unfounded” and likely retaliation, why would anyone carry out the complaint process?

      That would be like the police arresting bunch of drug dealers, and letting their cartel carry out the investigations.

      I wonder how many convictions there would be?  I wonder how many police would get tired of even arresting people?




  5. Davis Progressive

    one more thing 125,000 is just the people who bothered to complain.  given the low rate of sustained complaints and the non-action by the department, i’m amazed that number is so.

  6. Biddlin

    Type “Biddlin” into the google image search box and my picture will appear. My real name is so common I have not found myself by that method. If someone reading your post follows your idiotic advice and is shot and or killed by a cop, you are as responsible as the finger that pulls the trigger..

    1. Marina Kalugin

      am I some expert that someone who has any common sense would follow my “advice”….really??????

      but anyone with common sense should have a car cam and wear a go pro….and then use their judgement..

      if one is black, they have way more to risk….and especially if they are on parole and find themselves in a bad spot…..and not even know that it is a bad spot…

      ps even keeping your cell phone on may help…but too many times the cops will accidently shoot the device and thus unless you really have spy stuff running 24/7,  even that is not going to save your life…


  7. Frankly

    Americans who see such videos “over and over and over again” take them as “further proof of nationwide police brutality.”

    Propaganda: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

  8. Marina Kalugin

    If they are so rare, why am I and both my brilliant white sons victims in this lovely white upscale town or within just a few miles?

    Even if we are all criminals, which we are not at all, we’ve been arrested, lied about, and so on…

    In the 60s there was this joke….the only difference between a cop and a criminal is the side of the bars they are on.

    If anyone thought the 60s were bad, welcome to 2016…..way worse….and now with technology and so much else, the real criminals are getting caught right and left…..

  9. Frankly

    Let’s contrast how people really feel about policing in the US…


    WASHINGTON – An estimated 62.9 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 26 percent of the population, had one or more contacts with police in 2011, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.

    An estimated 31.4 million persons, or  one in eight U.S. residents, requested assistance from police at least once in 2011, most commonly to report a crime, suspicious activity or neighborhood disturbance. The majority of persons who requested police assistance in 2011 thought the officers spent an appropriate amount of time with them during the contact (93 percent) and were helpful (86 percent). About nine in 10 reported that they were just as likely or more likely to contact the police again for a similar problem.A larger percentage of persons reporting noncrime emergencies (91 percent) than persons reporting crimes or neighborhood disturbances (82 percent) were satisfied with the police response. Similar percentages of whites, blacks and Hispanics who reported a crime or neighborhood disturbance thought the police were helpful. Among persons who reported a noncrime emergency, blacks (83 percent) were less likely than Hispanics (96 percent) or whites (94 percent) to think the police were helpful.


    As students return to school in the U.S., 48% of Americans are “completely” or “somewhat satisfied” with the quality of kindergarten through high school education in the country, the highest Gallup has measured since 2004. For the first time since 2007, Americans are now about as likely to say they are satisfied as dissatisfied.

    So, even though cops have to deal with the worst of society, and teachers the best that society, police are 91% satisfied with police response to reports of non-crime, and 82% satisfied with police response to crime, and only 48% of Americans are satisfied with teaching performance.

    And ironically it is the failures of our education system and also our crappy US economic policy that dumps so many functionally illiterate and jobless young people into the care of the police.

    Just note the people making the biggest stink around their opinion that cops are guilty of so much gross misconduct… they are the same that tend to oppose any significant reforms to the education system and also favor job-killing social and environmental policy over what would benefit economic growth.

      1. Frankly

        You are infuriating in your hatred of cops.  You are not objective.

        125,000 complaints since 1967.  How many policy encounters during that same time period?  What is the ratio?   125,000 means nothing without context.  Compared to what?  What is the trend since 1967 relative to crime?  It is just hyperbole uses as a standalone number.  The same can be done with automobile fatalities.  Did you know that between 1967 and 2015 there have been 2,142,012 automobile fatalities?  Sounds terrible does it not.  If I hated automobiles and did not care about intellectual honesty in making my point I would just put that out there.

        There was a small group of officers that amassed more than 100 complaints in their careers.  Seven officers fall into that category, “including notoriously corrupt cops who wound up in prison but also others whose allegations of repeated wrongdoing were never before made public,” according to the Tribune.

        You support and protect unions don’t you?  Unions make it difficult to impossible to fire bad cops that are smart enough to operated on the edges of the rules… and even those with more chronic behavior problems.

        And you failed to acknowledge the high rate of public satisfaction for the work of police.  Compare it to the rate of satisfaction for the education system.  Why are you not criticizing the education system?

        1. Davis Progressive

          7 complaints a day – in one city.  high rate of public satisfaction just means the police are targeting a narrow group. and those are the people that stepped forward. the real complaint rate is much higher.

        2. Davis Progressive

          read the article, the numbers are there.  if you want to believe that the same cops are just happening to rack up 70 to 100 bogus complaints while many don’t have any, then be my guest.

        3. Davis Progressive

          read the article, it doesn’t specify bogus from not sustained.  do you really believe that a copy who gets 100 complaints, they’re all bogus?

        4. Davis Progressive

          you guys are asking unanswerable questions.  but it’s telling that you want to shrug off the problem as merely being bogus complaints or a union.

        5. Frankly

          This is really a ridiculous and weak approach for making the case of bad police.

          My Davis cop brother in-law before he committed suicide… something that we believe was contributed to by the stress of his job… had two law suits against him by upset suspects.  Like all cops, he had some complaints against him too.  Even though he was known in the PD as being one of the most kind and compassionate officers.  He would get more letters of thanks than complaints.  In fact his family looks back on his situation and has come to the conclusion that he never had the right personality for policing.  His tendency to care caused him too much personal anguish over what he had to deal with as a cop.  He became more cynical about humanity over time.

          Let’s face it… the people that the cops deal with on a daily basis tend to be the worst examples of humanity.

          The complaints go with the job.  Most of them are just BS from people that fail to take responsibility for their own misbehavior and law breaking.  You would expect there to be complaints from the very people that cops end up dealing with.  These encounters are negative by design.  It isn’t like a firefighter just coming to save someone’s property and be a hero.  The job of cops is to deal with people behaving badly.  People don’t like to be told they are behaving badly… especially those that behave badly as part of their accepted cultural practices.  So you would expect them to complain.  To stop the complaints you would need the cops to stand down.  To stop policing these neighborhoods where there is so much bad behavior and lawlessness.   And then we would hear more complaints that the cops are not doing their jobs to prevent crime.

        6. quielo

          “7 complaints a day – in one city.  high rate of public satisfaction just means the police are targeting a narrow group. and those are the people that stepped forward. the real complaint rate is much higher.”


          In 2012 there were 11,944 sworn officers in chicago. 7 complaints a day = 2555 total complaints or less than one per every four officers. Not sure that is very high but it could be.

        7. Davis Progressive

          quielo – that’s a high number.

          frankly – what’s interesting is that there are now very few complaints in the dpd and almost no lawsuits.  how did that happen?  better management.  the combination of landy black and bob aaronson reduced complaints in davis from 40 in 2007 down to 5 last year according to the vanguard article this year.  it’s not an accident when you have some officers with 70 or 100 complaints while others have none and it’s not an accident when you have a department that makes changes and sees those complaints drop dramatically.

    1. South of Davis

      DP wrote:

      > how did that happen?  better management.  the combination

      > of landy black and bob aaronson reduced complaints in davis

      > from 40 in 2007 down to 5 last year

      I agree with DP that Landy Black is doing a good job, but they got help from the real estate market that caused many poor people (that commit more crime “and” complain about the cops more often) to move out of town when their rent increased.  The UCD apartment survey said that average 2 bedroom apartment rent was $1,172 in 2007 increasing to $1,462 in 2015.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Past tense on Landy Black, he’s been retired since the start of the year. You’re wrong on your explanation. The changes had to do with getting rid of problem officers, changing the culture, and having a zero tolerance police for misconduct.

  10. South of Davis

    David’s headline says:

    “We Don’t Know How Deep Police Misconduct Goes”

    True, none of us really knows “How Deep” the Police Misconduct Goes but since I have childhood friends that are cops (and retired cops) as well as left leaning friends and right leaning friends I feel safe saying that it is not as deep as most left leaning people think it is, but deeper than most right leaning people think it is…

      1. Frankly

        DP, I cannot get a point of respect for you on this topic.  You are an unhinged armchair cop hater.  It glows from almost every word you write.

        It is freakin’ amazing that David and you chose to use Chicago as your poster child for bad policing.  This is the city with a liberal-loved mayor… one of your Barack Obama good guys.  Chicago is a mess.  It is a mess of violent ghetto culture.  It is a way zone, not a “need for sensitive policing” state.


        Chicago has long had a reputation for violence and a citizenry made cynical by decades of machine politics. McCarthy, the ousted superintendent, describes it as a place where “culture trumps policy.”

        Cops in Chicago confiscate more illegal guns than those in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Gang audits have identified nearly 700 factions of street crews across the city’s 22 police districts. On Bettie Jones’ block alone there are three warring factions: Travelling Vice Lords, Four Corner Hustlers and Cicero Insane Vice Lords.

        Local rappers have branded the city Chi-raq. It’s no stretch. Chicago’s 2015 citywide homicide rate was 17 per 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of four. In Chicago’s 11th police district the rate is 62. (Iraq’s rate is 20.)

        1. Davis Progressive

          right.  i’m a hater because i dislike corrupt police officers.  why chicago?  that’s where the data came out of.  it’s worse than even professionals there imagined.  you’re defense is all over the map and mindboggling to me.

        2. Frankly

          Your inability to accept that high levels of crime and violence change the job of policing to something that repels you at a personal level.  That is your problem not the cops’ problem.  The cops’ problem is preventing crime and keeping the law abiding safe from criminals.  That is their primary role and purpose.  The reason for their existence.   It is secondary to reports of public satisfaction… especially when a high percentage of the public are criminals.

          You have no filter of relativity when it comes to cops.  It is like you have horse blinders on and can only process is a myopic narrow little brain window.  I think you must have had some personal bad experienced with a cop or two and have a permanent bug up your rear about police in general.  Blue bias is what I detect.

        3. Davis Progressive

          i reject your false narrative that high levels of crime and violence mean you have to violate the rights under the constitute and permit the use of excessive force.

        4. Frankly

          High levels of crime and high levels of violence require more police encounters which increases the risk of mistakes, increases the probability that someone will complain and increase the number of complaints.

          Watching NFL last night and the refs had called 19 penalties before the end of the 3rd quarter.  The players were frustrated… blaming the refs.  One of the announcers commented that the players should stop committing fouls if they did not like the calls and penalties.

          More calls and penalties did not make the players decide to commit more fouls.  That would be a silly notion.

    1. talexander555

      To Frankly:

      My heart truly goes out to you, as my brother committed suicide as well.   He was not a police officer, although my grandfather was.   It [suicide]  is absolutely devastating for a family when someone who seemingly has every reason to live takes their own life.

      For me, its something that happened a long time ago, but never truly goes away.

      We are likely on different sides of the political spectrum.  Politics aside, however,  I am sorry for your loss.

      1. Frankly

        talexander555 –

        Thank you.  Same to you.  Suicide sucks.  That is my final analysis after thinking about it since 1977, 1999, 2008 and 2010.  There is no explanation only the pain of loss for those that decide to live.

  11. talexander555

    These numbers also don’t take into account how difficult it is to lodge a complaint in the first place.    Because the process is largely a secret, internal one, many realize there is no point in complaining.

    The process is in my mind constitutionally flawed.    And I do agree with D. Progressive in terms a connection between corruption and higher crime rates.

    When a person or group has endured repeated and continued discrimination it tends to create anger.       Being white, I have only experienced such for the past 8 or so years, since I was diagnosed with a mental disability.    Also being white, I have only known this about the police since the past 10 months.  There are police on the street who have repeatedly committed crimes–of all variety.    And they are allowed to continue in their respective positions.    I had absolutely no idea.

    Prior to becoming ill I was like most middle class white Americans, I truly believe(ed) in the police and that they would “do the right thing.”  (They tell poor people this when they are trying to get information out of them.   Ironically, police are the first to union up when a complaint is lodged).

    Despite my newfound knowledge in this subject, I still believe that most officers want to do a good job.    The problem seems to be that  many are like the majority of white mid and upper class people-it is not their problem so they don’t understand.    I certainly didn’t.

    Now, I can’t begin to understand the first thing about being black, and being killed simply for that reason.    Furthermore, any personal issues I have regarding police misconduct are of a separate variety than racial violence.   However, as the author of this article states “Police misconduct comes in many forms”, that is 100% accurate.

    This has been going on for centuries–the people with the majority of the wealth and power enjoying the benefit from public services.   It is human nature, why should the comfortable people worry about the marginal classes.

    “Let them eat cake. . .  .  .. ”      right?



    1. Frankly

      The process is in my mind constitutionally flawed.    And I do agree with D. Progressive in terms a connection between corruption and higher crime rates.

      Such BS.  You would need some serious science to prove that.  And you won’t because it does not exist and would never exist.

      I’m sure you reject the broken window theory.  You are trying to use the same mechanism to make this point.

      I can see the attraction though if you are a strong victimology believer.  Also someone that knows their ideology that has led to decades of failed liberal policies that have decimated these neighborhoods.  What better mechanism for turning the blame of crime and social decay onto the police.  Can’t have those people accept responsibility for their own terrible lawless and violent behavior, and can’t have those Democrats running the cities being blamed.   Has to be “the police man”.

      “Yo, the cops, they make me so angry I think I will go rob and shoot someone.”  Right.  Really?   And you want to maintain your credibility with this thinking?

      God please, someone provide some therapy to these people spouting such nonsense.

      Read the article I posted.

      1. talexander555

        (Frankly) You stated that I would would need some serious science to prove that:

        Social Science:

        1)   Constitution   1st Amendment     (Freedom of press, speech) and 14th

        2)  Sustained police rulings in California–no disclosure

        3)  FOIA protections of police-virtually half of this contains police protection

        4)  The fact that I was nearly killed from misconduct, despite not being arrested for anything

        5)   The officer continues to work on duty.   No one knows, because the press is barred from reporting, generally.

        6)  The “suspect classes” be the ones who have to continually deal with the officers who keep doing the most wrong.

        7)  This absolute silencing of misconduct is inherently contrary to a nation of free flowing ideas, and the founding document of this nation

  12. talexander555

    I was nearly killed by a police officer so blitzed out of his mind he couldn’t drive to the ER.   The complaint was sustained.   He is a known alcoholic, and continues to work on duty.    The DA took a year to even respond (he has DUIs himself).  Thats not right. It pissed me off something fierce.

    Social decay?    I hold two degrees, homey.

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