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Officers accused of brutality often have histories of past complaints

As protests against police violence and racism continue in cities throughout the U.S., the public is learning several of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville share a history of past complaints.

Decades of research reveals officers with a history of shooting civilians, for example, are much more likely to do so in the future. A similar pattern holds for forms of misconduct. Officers who are the subject of previous civilian complaints — regardless of whether those complaints are for excessive force, verbal abuse or unlawful searches — pose a higher risk of engaging in serious misconduct in the future.

A study published in the American Economic Journal reviewed 50,000 allegations of officer misconduct in Chicago. It found officers with extensive complaint histories were disproportionately more likely to be named subjects in civil rights lawsuits with extensive claims and large settlements.

Many law enforcement agencies often fail to adequately investigate misconduct allegations and rarely sustain citizen complaints. Disciplinary sanctions are few and reserved for the most egregious cases.

Derek Chauvin, the ex-officer who has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd, is no stranger to deadly force.

During a 2006 stop, Chauvin was among six officers who — in just four seconds — fired 43 rounds into a truck driven by a man wanted for questioning in a domestic assault.

Suspect Wayne Reyes, accused of aiming a sawed-off shotgun at them, died at the scene. Police never acknowledged which officers had fired their guns and a grand jury returned no indictments.

Chauvin was involved in two additional shootings and cited in at least 18 separate misconduct complaints. According to The Associated Press, 16 of the complaints were “closed with no discipline” and letters of reprimand were issued in the other two.

Tou Thao, one of three Minneapolis officers at the scene as Floyd was pleading for his life, was named in a 2017 civil rights lawsuit. Plaintiff Lamar Ferguson said he was walking home with his pregnant girlfriend when Thao and another officer stopped him without cause, handcuffed him and proceeded to kick, punch and knee him with such force they shattered some of his teeth.

The case was settled by the city for $25,000, with the officers and the city declaring no liability. It is not known if Thao was disciplined by the department.

In Louisville, Kentucky, at least three of the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant at her home — allowing them to use a battering ram to open her door — had previously been sanctioned.

One of the officers, Brett Hankison, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging harassment of suspects and planting of drugs. He has denied the charges.

Another officer in that case, Myles Cosgrove, was sued for excessive force in 2006 by a man he shot seven times in the course of a routine traffic stop. But the case was dismissed and Cosgrove was reinstated.

I am a scholar of law and the criminal justice system. In my work on wrongful convictions in Philadelphia, I regularly encounter patterns of police misconduct. They include witness intimidation, evidence tampering and coercion. But Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate fewer than one in 12 complaints of police misconduct results in any kind of disciplinary action.

Then there is the problem of “gypsy cops” — a derogatory ethnic slur used in law enforcement circles to refer to officers who are fired for serious misconduct from one department only to be hired by another.

Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, resigned in lieu of dismissal from his previous department after being deemed unfit to serve. A grand jury did not indict Loehmann for the killing, but he was fired by the Cleveland police for failing to disclose the reason he left his previous job.

In the largest study to date, researchers concluded rehired officers comprise about 3% of the police force and present a serious threat because of their propensity to re-offend. These officers, the study’s authors concluded, “are more likely … to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a ‘moral character violation.’”

The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the creation of a national database to identify officers whose law enforcement licenses had been revoked for misconduct. The database that currently exists, the National Decertification Index, is limited, given state level variation in reporting requirements and decertification processes.

Analysts agree this would be a useful step, but it does not address underlying organizational and institutional sources of violence, discrimination and misconduct.

In the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice found that the local form had a lengthy history of excessive force, unconstitutional stops and searches, and racial discrimination and bias. The report said use of force was often punitive and retaliatory, and “used almost exclusively against African Americans.”

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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