Police officers were arrested 1,695 times for violations of their oaths to the public, messing with evidence, or lying in official statements from 2005 to 2012, according to a vast new data set on criminals in uniform released Tuesday.
The numbers, compiled by Bowling Green State University professor and former cop Phil Stinson, are likely a low-end estimate. As with police killings, there is no reliable centralized data on police crime. Stinson has sought to address both of those gaps by compiling his own numbers, using a combination of local news reports and court records. Stinson’s new database found more than 8,000 total criminal arrests of law enforcement officers in the United States in the 8-year period his team has thus far finished analyzing.
Official misconduct of the corrupt kind — planted evidence, dishonest police reports, and other violations of the unique authority society entrusts to cops — takes up two spots in the top 10 list of police crimes. The two most common crimes for which a sworn law enforcement officer was arrested in Stinson’s numbers are assault and DUI. But “official misconduct,” which Stinson says is sometimes used as a bland catch-all for a wide range of police criminal behavior, comes in third.
The sheer number of cops arrested for sexual crimes also jumps off the page. Nearly 600 of the arrests listed were for “forcible fondling.” Forcible rape rounds out the top 10 list of police crimes, with 359 oath-bound cops arrested on rape charges in the 8-year window Stinson’s team studied. The researchers intend to add data for 2013 later this fall as well as subsequent years as they complete their detailed review of the raw figures they collect.
The numbers track arrests, not convictions — just like the most commonly used civilian crime figures bandied about by politicians and police officials when arguing that police need greater resources and fewer regulations on their conduct in the street.
Another striking finding from the numbers: far more police have been arrested for criminal misconduct that does not involve violence than for violent crimes over the past four years. The wave of public attention directed to police killings since 2014 sometimes seems to have short coattails. Non-fatal brutality cases and non-violent violations of civil rights under color of law haven’t been ignored, but these more quotidian forms of police criminality certainly do not receive the same level of all-hands-on-deck media scrutiny as fatal incidents in fishy circumstances.
Yet people of color have known for years that false arrest, so-called “contempt of cop” charges, and illegal searches of one’s person, vehicle, or home are treated as a cost of doing business in modern policing. Stinson’s numbers show a radical shift in the balance of police criminality. Non-violent incidents led to 1,677 arrests of police officers in the first four years of the dataset, only slightly fewer than the 1,754 arrests for misconduct tied to violence. That gap flips — and widens — in the second half of Stinson’s figures. More than 2,500 of the 4,575 criminal arrests of officers his team recorded from 2009 to 2012 stemmed from non-violent incidents.
Any time a reporter wants to talk to you about eye-popping raw numbers, squint and demand denominators. The thousand-arrests-per-year average recorded in Stinson’s incomplete but best-in-class dataset start to look less damning when you consider just how vast the law enforcement business has become. More than a million people work in state and local law enforcement, about three-quarters of them sworn officers with arrest powers. The new arrest figures therefore suggest that one cop in 750 gets arrested for a crime in any given year. (A hundred thousand more carry official power to arrest on behalf of the federal government, officers not reflected in Stinson’s state-and-local dataset.)
The ratios implied by the new arrest data might seem at first blush to support the argument that media coverage and community activism exaggerates police misconduct, that it is in fact the work of a vanishingly small share of “bad apples” within the force. But such a rendering of the figures obscures more than it clarifies.
First, Stinson’s numbers reflect only those incidents of misconduct so clear-cut as to prompt fellow officers to cuff one of their own. Treating arrest figures as a reliable proxy for actual misconduct means handing over one’s own judgment of what is appropriate or inappropriate conduct by a police officer. Second, such severe incidents are apt to wreak disastrous consequences in the lives of an officer’s victims, and to negatively affect scores of other people in that victim’s network: family, friends, work associates. That one-in-750 figure, scaled up to account for the impact of police criminality on a community, then up again for large city police departments with tens of thousands of sworn officers, starts to look shocking again despite the relative rarity of officers facing arrest.
Recall, too, how readily cops can make their way back onto the job even when their commanders try to get rid of him. Of the 1,881 police officers fired for misconduct in a recent Washington Post investigation, 451 were eventually reinstated following a union appeal. The reinstatements the Post recorded came from a pool of just 91,000 total officers.
The purpose of putting cops in uniform is to identify them as members of a monolithic collective. Each represents the others, every moment of every shift. The police are meant to be an institution of peace and justice, with individual identities subsumed by the uniform into a collective whole. No citizen approached by an officer can reasonably stop to think about how safe or unsafe they are based on the specific cop they’re talking to; it doesn’t take many crooks in uniform to taint everyone who wears it. Stinson’s data show there are more than enough of them to trigger the kind of reasonable suspicion of all police that apologists for the badge tend to decry as nefarious and unwarranted.