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Networks of Potential Criminal Cops Identified in Chicago Police Data

New study shows cop “crews” cause disproportionate amount of police misconduct, especially in Black and Latinx communities

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The Watts case is shaping up to be one of the largest police corruption scandals in U.S. history, and our paper shows what we’re learning here can possibly help us find other groups of criminal-oriented cops.”

Andrew Papachristos
IPR sociologist

Police car

New research can help officials identify hidden networks of officers engaging in misconduct and criminal behavior within police organizations. The study shows that police misconduct is a group phenomenon that contributes to a disproportionate number of arrests in minority communities. 

The study, published in PLOS ONE, was led by IPR sociologist Andrew Papachristos, director of the Northwestern Neighborhood and Network Initiative (N3). The Invisible Institute, a Chicago nonprofit for investigative journalism, also worked on the study.

In this first-of-its-kind study, the research team used insights from three known cases of police corruption—including the ongoing case of ex-Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts whose team ran an extortion racket at a Chicago housing project for more than a decade—to create a statistical model to identify possible crews of officers engaging in misconduct and, at times, criminal behavior. The model was then used to analyze publicly available complaint and arrest data on Chicago police officers from 1971 to 2018.

“This paper shows we can identify possible crews of bad cops using historical examples, like the Ronald Watts case, as a point of calibration,” Papachristos said. “The Watts case is shaping up to be one of the largest police corruption scandals in U.S. history, and our paper shows what we’re learning here can possibly help us find other groups of criminal-oriented cops.”

Using machine learning and network analysis, the researchers reviewed the records of 30,000 police officers to detect groups of officers who tend to share characteristics with known crews and who, the results show, have an outsized share of misconduct complaints.

The study detected approximately 160 potential “crews” of officers, networked by formal or informal work assignments and co-allegations. “Crew” officers comprise less than 4% of all Chicago police officers, yet they account for approximately 25% of all use-of-force complaints, city payouts for civil and criminal litigations and police-involved shootings.

Detected “crews” also contribute disproportionately to racial disparities in arrests and civilian complaints, generating nearly 18% of all complaints filed by Black Chicagoans and 14% of complaints filed by Latinx Chicagoans.

In contrast to prior studies focused on individual traits and behaviors to identify “a few bad apples” more likely to be involved in misconduct, the study provides evidence that extreme cases of criminal police behavior are a group activity in which officers are influenced by formal and informal structures.

“We know that more than 200 convictions have been overturned because of the Watts case alone,” Papachristos said. “If our results hold, we are talking about possibly thousands of Chicagoans who have been directly subjected to such cop crews—and even more that have been indirectly impacted.”

Jamie Kalven is founding executive director of the Invisible Institute, which houses the data on Chicago police used in the study. After the Illinois appellate court ruled in Kalven v. Chicago in 2014 that investigations of complaints filed against police officers are public information, the Invisible Institute designed the Citizens Police Data Project to make police profiles readily accessible.

“The study has yielded a tool of immediate utility to police departments and oversight agencies,” Kalven said. “It is a critical component of an early warning system that enables supervisors to identify groups of officers that have characteristics resembling those of crews of officers known to be criminal. It is important to be clear: Such patterns do not in themselves constitute proof of criminality. They are, rather, prompts for supervisors to investigate.

Police violence places a heavy toll on civilians, with those in Black and Latinx communities the hardest hit. For every police-involved shooting reported in the media, there are thousands of instances of non-lethal use of force, verbal abuse, demeaning interactions, and problematic police behavior.

“Prior research, including some of our own, show that police misconduct and abuse can impact people physically, mentally and emotionally for decades,” Papachristos said. “And cases of cop crews that actively conceal their behavior and are protected by their fellow officers continue to undermine the relationship between the community and police, which is crucial to trust and public safety.”

Read the entire story from Northwestern Now.

Andrew Papachristos is professor of sociology, director of the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network (N3) Initiative, and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: Unsplash

Published: May 4, 2022.