A new study that analyzes more than 10 years of civilian complaints finds that Chicago police officers with the highest numbers of complaints are also the most likely to have high-profile (and high-cost) civil rights lawsuits filed against them in the future.
I know, I know. That would appear to be fairly obvious, right? The more people who complain about your job performance—particularly when they are people you serve—the more likely it is that they’ll one day take issue with your shitty job performance in court.
But the study also effectively counters arguments lobbed by police unions about the importance of civilian complaints and suggests that department intervention could prevent officers like Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, from being involved in those situations in the first place.
Van Dyke shot Laquan 16 times in the back as the teen walked away from officers with a knife in his hand.
The forthcoming study, “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Using Civilian Allegations to Predict Police Misconduct,” (h/t Injustice Watch) was conducted by Kyle Rozema of the University of Chicago Law School and Max Schanzenbach of Pritzker Law School at Northwestern University. It will appear in an upcoming edition of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.
As part of their analysis, Rozema and Schanzenbach found Officer Van Dyke had accrued so many civilian complaints between 2002 and 2014 that he was in the top 3 percent of officers. As Injustice Watch writes, this category puts him in the group most likely to be the subject of a civil rights lawsuit.
In other words, those complaints are predictive of use of force. In fact, the top 1 percent of officers who received complaints were found to “generate almost five times the number of payouts and four times the total damage payouts” as their peers.
This matters because Chicago PD rarely takes action on these civilian complaints; researchers found the department disciplined cops only 2.4 percent of the time. That’s a key intervention that is regularly being missed.
That civilian complaints could predict costly lawsuits seems like common sense. But police unions have sought to discredit the importance of civilian complaints, countering that cops who work hardest (whether that be the longest hours or toughest beats) or work in dangerous neighborhoods are more likely to accrue complaints, writes Injustice Watch.
The study’s findings contradict this. Researchers found that when police officers switched districts, “it did not affect an officer’s propensity to rack up complaints,” according to Injustice Watch.
And officers who racked up a lot of civilian complaints also received them from coworkers within their departments (including supervisors), further suggesting that it wasn’t the environment or the work the cops were doing that prompted the complaints, but the officers themselves.
In an attempt to address this, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan agreed on a draft to a consent decree this summer, which would compel Chicago PD to change its civilian complaint and officer intervention processes, Injustice Watch writes.
Had Van Dyke been properly disciplined, it’s possible he may have never crossed paths with Laquan. Instead, jury selection begins today for his trial.
Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and aggravated assault.