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New investigation reveals widespread police misconduct never publicly revealed

Although the conviction of a Florida police officer for killing an African American motorist is currently making headlines, a wide-ranging investigation into police misconduct finds that most incidents are never publicly revealed. Amna Nawaz talks to the Cincinnati Enquirer's James Pilcher, who helped compile the report, about how law enforcement made it difficult to obtain this critical data.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, excuse me, for the first time in nearly three decades, a former police officer in Florida was sentenced to prison time today for shooting to death an African-American man whose car had broken down. The killing in Florida is getting national attention, as have a number of cases of police conduct and questionable shootings in recent years.

    But as Amna Nawaz tells us, most cases of police misconduct are not in the public eye. A new investigation finds tens of thousands of officers have been investigated or disciplined over the last decade.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reporters around the country, from the "USA Today" network and the non-profit Invisible Institute, spent more than a year compiling the largest database of misconduct records. They found that at least 85,000 officers have been investigated or disciplined for some 200,000 incidents of alleged misconduct, much of it previously unreported to the public. Most were minor infractions, but there were still thousands of more serious cases, including allegations of excessive force, rape, domestic violence and drug dealing.

    They also found frequent dishonesty. The database uncovered more than 2,200 instances of perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses, or falsifying reports.

    And, 32 people became police chiefs or sheriffs despite a finding of serious misconduct, usually at another department.

    James Pilcher is one of the reporters for that "USA Today" network. He works at the "Cincinnati Inquirer" and joins me now.

    James Pilcher, welcome to the NewsHour.

    Let's start with the records. How hard was it to get access to that information in the first place?

  • James Pilcher:

    Well, in many cases, it was difficult. We had to sue in some cases. The police unions and so forth have been able to make it very difficult to access some of this information, and we still feel like we've only scratched the surface.

    We've covered maybe, you know, a tenth of the total agencies in this country. We've probably got data from about 700 to 800 different departments covering 80,000 officers, while there are 750,000 officers in this country at 18,000 different departments. So we're just getting started.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you mentioned in some cases unions stood in the way of getting to the information. In a typical police force, in a typical environment, what usually happens to those records of misconduct?

  • James Pilcher:

    Well, in most cases, they are filed in their personnel file, although in some cases they actually have a separate file you might not know as a regular public citizen for discipline versus their personnel file. That's the case sometimes here in Cincinnati, for example.

    And then it stays with their record. But in some cases, the unions have been able to negotiate and have some episodes or discipline taken off their record after five or seven years and it sort of cycles. If you're on good behavior for a while, the bad behavior falls off. So, the bad incident may not be reported or may not be known in their file anymore after 10 years or so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we mentioned there were serious cases obviously that you uncovered there. But in the range of misbehavior that falls under misconduct, where did most of the cases fall? What kind of actions or behavior are we talking about?

  • James Pilcher:

    Well, if you look at the data that we published nationally, we published lists from 44 states of all the different officers who've been decertified, basically lost their license to be a police officer. The majority of those, more than 10 percent were for drugs and alcohol abuse.

    But there were another 10 percent that were for domestic abuse, and there was another good portion of those that were for dishonesty or perjury. So, you know, it runs the gamut from, you know, insubordination, all the way up to excessive force, to felony convictions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You highlight this one incredible story I have to point out. A police officer in one town gets fired, then he gets rehired as the police chief in another town. How does that happen?

  • James Pilcher:

    Well, the mayor of that town openly admits that he didn't check very well. And that actually happens more than you would think. We've found that to be a fairly common occurrence because people in these small towns are so desperate for police help that sometimes they just take what they can get and don't really check very hard.

    All it would have taken was one phone call from this small-town mayor to this other town less than an hour away, and I literally say his personnel file at that department is this big. So, I've seen it myself. So, he was actually fired twice from that department and reinstated by a mediator who was convicted of a felony, he crashed a police car, the list went on and on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also highlighted a few cases of officers who were what you called consistently under investigation, almost 2,500 investigated on 10 or more charges, 20 individuals who face 100 or more allegations, all of them kept their badges. Did you have any independent understanding of how that was allowed to happen?

  • James Pilcher:

    Part of it is the system of police discipline in this country is so localized and balkanized. It's a state by state, municipality by municipality endeavor. So, it varies from place to place. Even from state to state, it varies.

    So you could actually get decertified in one state and then actually go apply and get a badge in another state, so that we found that happening quite often as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just a few seconds before we go, James. This was an enormous undertaking, right, more than a year's worth of work. Why do you think it was so important for this information to be out there?

  • James Pilcher:

    Because the public doesn't have a way to have an insight into the people that were supposed to be protecting us and so, this was a way for us — you know, there are other agencies who do collect this data but they don't make it public. This was a way for us to take it to the public and say, OK — especially in this day and age where we're having such a debate over policing and police tactics that we felt that this was the right time to do this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    James Pilcher of the "USA Today" Network, thank you very much for joining us.

  • James Pilcher:

    Thank you for having me.

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