New Police Crimes Database Provides Law Enforcement Accountability Tool
In September, Bowling Green State University in Ohio published the country’s first online police crime database. It’s a small but noteworthy milestone for groups like Black Lives Matter who have called for greater law enforcement accountability as police brutality and the shootings of African Americans by officers have continued to dominate headlines.
The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database covers a seven-year period from 2005 to 2012 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia: 8,006 cases were brought against 6,596 officers from 2,830 municipal departments nationwide. There are 18,000 police departments and 1.1 million sworn officers in the United States.
The database includes information about individual police officers who have been arrested—sometimes by their own departments—on felony and misdemeanor charges ranging from disorderly conduct to aggravated assault. But it is short on details, only identifying each officer by his or her badge number. There is little information about officers who were put on probation or served time in prison.
According to Phil Stinson, the Bowling Green State University professor of criminology and former police officer who created the database, many officers who are caught committing a crime are given the option to resign quietly instead of facing a trial. “Granted, because everyone who is in the database has been arrested or charged,” Stinson says, “we don’t know a lot about the misconduct of police officers if it doesn’t result in them being brought into the criminal justice system or some other formal way.”
Moreover, police departments are notorious for being reluctant to disclose evidence relating to alleged officer misconduct. In October 2014, a Chicago police officer shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald when they were called to his neighborhood after getting reports of a black teenager wandering around with a knife. It took more than a year and countless hearings for McDonald’s family to get access to the dashboard video that depicted the shooting that cost McDonald his life. A nearby Burger King surveillance camera also recorded the shooting, but before the McDonald family or media could access the video, police officers deleted the video.
Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald, had 20 previous complaints filed against him from citizens who complained about him using excessive force but had never been convicted of any crimes.
In its continuing push for police accountability, the BGSU database may prove to be a powerful tool for the Black Lives Matter movement. Launched after Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, BLM has sparked a national debate about policing in African American and other minority communities. Their activism has led to certain reforms, such as the use of body cameras to record interactions with civilians, and the incremental scaling back of “broken windows” policing tactics.
The database demonstrates that crimes committed by police officers are not “one-off situation that [don’t] happen very often,” Stinson says. “People across the country, every day, are reading reports of [police officers] being arrested.” Indeed, tracking felonies and misdemeanors committed by police officers helps raise awareness of a key issue: the tendency by some police officers to treat every person of color as a potential suspect rather than as a citizen who deserves fair treatment and protection.