Mimesis Law
26 May 2019

Crappy Police Transparency Is Why Laquan McDonald’s Killer Still Had a Gun

Dec. 18, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Over the course of his career, Officer Jason Van Dyke amassed at least twenty complaints, mostly for excessive force and racial slurs. Not one resulted in discipline. And so when Laquan McDonald made the mistake of walking away from him with a knife, Van Dyke shot him sixteen times in the back. Relying on the silence of other officers, and the complicity of Anita Alvarez, Van Dyke had little reason to second-guess himself when the urge struck.

Since 2007, Chicago has found only one out of four hundred police shootings to be unjustified.

Around the country, police unions have created robust protections for reports of police misconduct. Such reports are often exempted from FOIA requests, inadmissible for cross-examination, or otherwise hidden from public view, all in an effort to protect public employees from public scrutiny.

And so, for ordinary people trying to find out whether local law enforcement is doing a good job on the numbers that count, from the use of deadly force to incidents of sexual assault, getting at useful data can require serious legal skills and honey-badger-like determination.

But after years of effort, the Invisible Institute received information on just a small number of Chicago’s worst officers, and the statistics are revealing.

As Five-Thirty-Eight’s Rob Smith reports, they show a pattern that some might call “a few bad apples.” The Invisible Institute prefers the term “repeater,” as in “repeat offender.”

Repeaters only make up a small fraction of the more than 12,000 officers on Chicago’s force — perhaps 1 percent to 10 percent of the officers in the database, depending on where you draw the line — but are responsible for a huge fraction of the complaints: 10 percent of the officers who had received complaints generated 30 percent of the total departmental complaints since 2011. The 10 individual repeaters with the most complaints in the past five years averaged 23.4 complaints against them in that span.

The most interesting aspect of the data is the way that complaints found to be “unsubstantiated” seem to recur year after year. An officer accused of conducting five illegal searches one year is very likely to be accused of conducting illegal searches in the next. Yet there is no evidence that the Chicago Police Department is aggregating “unsubstantiated” charges to ask itself, “What are the chances that this officer has been falsely accused of the exact same conduct 15 times?”

So for instance, four officers of one Chicago “special operations” units managed to rack up, together, over 200 complaints. Yet a story from the Chicago Tribune reporting on the later federal convictions for members of that unit (for perjury, falsified evidence, and stealing money during unlawful searches) showed that only one of the officers had ever been reprimanded.

A pretty central feature of our system of justice is the notion of deterrence—that the risk of getting caught prevents people from doing bad things. But what the Chicago data really demonstrates is something more like a perverse incentive.

Just as charging people five dollars for picking up their kid late from a daycare absolves them from the feelings of guilt they might otherwise experience, consistently telling officers that there is nothing wrong with their conduct may encourage them to do it more often than if there were no investigation at all.

Overall, the data shows that fewer than 2% of complaints lead to any form of discipline. Of course, many of these complaints may be spurious, but it’s hard to be very afraid of a system with a lower punishment rate than Guatemala.

The Fraternal Order of Police’s response to this sudden burst of sunshine and transparency has been sadly predictable. At every step, they’ve moved to obstruct the public release of disciplinary records, arguing that part of their contract with the city of Chicago hides those documents from public view and requires the destruction of any disciplinary report older than five years.

At a moment when the country is finally looking, seriously, at how our police are protecting and servicing, it seems that the Fraternal Order of Police would rather pass unnoticed.

And yet the solution is clear, and it has been clear for years. Living in a country where every restaurant, dive-bar, motel, or even prison is exhaustively rated and reviewed, it is hard to justify a system that would keep the quality of police officers under the radar.

With every glance we take at the data, we see that what much of police officers are saying is true. Most officers are good. Most are trying. And it is for exactly that reasons that they should hesitate to wear the same badge as men like Jason Van Dyke.

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