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