Collect Data: Data Sources for Police Misconduct

When gathering police misconduct data, consider collecting both Misconduct Data – information about the actions of individual officers, as well as Background Data – general information about which officers are in a department, how the department is structured, their official policies etc.

Misconduct Data Sources

No single data source will have the full picture of officer conduct. Combining sources gives you a more complete picture. Data on officer misconduct can generally be found as official law enforcement data, publicly available data, and (if you represent clients) case-related data. 

Official Police Data

Law Enforcement Internal Affairs Department

Many Law enforcement agencies have an internal affairs department which investigates misconduct and corruption internally on the police force. There also might be another city department that investigates misconduct across all city agencies.

Oversight Agencies

In many cities across the US, review boards, watchdog groups, or oversight agencies have been established to investigate complaints of police misconduct. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) has a list of police oversight agencies by jurisdiction on their website.

Internal Agency Forms

In some agencies, officers may have to document when they engage in certain kinds of activity, such as a stop and frisk or use of force. It might be helpful to review the department’s patrol guide to see what types of forms might be available.

District Attorneys

District attorneys may keep lists of officers they know have credibility issues or substantial impeachment material. These are sometimes referred to as brady lists. They also might keep data on declined prosecutions, cases where evidence was suppressed, or an officer was found incredible.

Publicly Available Data

Federal Lawsuits

Civil rights lawsuits filed against law enforcement agencies and their officers can be a wealth of insight into police misconduct.

PACER

Lawsuits filed in federal court are available on the federal website PACER. While you can create a free account to search PACER, the government charges fees to view documents over a certain amount. However, you may be eligible for a fee waiver

More information about PACER fees is available on the Free Law Project website.

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RECAP Archive

The RECAP Archive is a free searchable collection of millions of PACER documents and dockets, created and managed by the Free Law Project in partnership with The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. No account or user-registration is necessary to search this database. Users may search by jurisdiction, docket number, document, case name, judge, case type, party name, and attorney name. Visit the RECAP Archive.

State Lawsuits

Lawsuits filed in local courts may be available electronically or at the local courthouse. Local civil rights attorney may be able to provide helpful insight into when a case would be filed in federal versus state court.

Legal Research Sites

Legal research sites, such as Westlaw, LexisNexis and Bloomberg Law, might also include case information indicative of police misconduct. A search for an officer’s name may turn up civil rights lawsuits against police departments or other noteworthy cases that the officer was involved in.

News and Publications

Set up news alerts about the agency or officers you want to track.

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Local news sources might also be a great source of police misconduct data. Press entities and reporters may have special access to police discipline records that they might be willing to share. Review a sample of news articles from your jurisdiction that discuss police misconduct and check if there is anything they have in common that you could use to specify your alert. For example, maybe an Internal Affairs Department spokesperson is always quoted when an officer is being investigated.

Public Civilian Complaints

There are a few national initiatives to make it easier for civilians to publicly complain about police misconduct. A few initiatives are openpolicecomplaints.org and Raheem.ai. You should consider connecting with these groups and ask how they might be able to share data with you. Raheem.ai also offers the ability for organizations to add a widget to their website where civilians can make complaints about the police.

Overtime Data

While overtime data alone is not indicative of misconduct, it can provide helpful insight. Since officers can sometimes game the overtime system, an officer earning a significant amount of overtime could raise a red flag.  Overtime data is typically accessible through an agency’s payroll office.

Social Media

Officers’ public social media profiles can illuminate biases or provide information that might taint their credibility as a witness. You may be able to find officers on social media by searching for people who have tagged their employer as the law enforcement agency. There also might be some forums, blogs, and groups which are frequented by officers in an agency. The Plain View Project has aggregated a database of problematic social media posts by officers from a variety of police departments.

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Other Public Projects

There is a large wave of academics, journalists, civil rights groups and individuals who have begun initiatives to track police misconduct. There might be a university or local group who is already aggregating police misconduct data in your jurisdiction. A limited, non-exhaustive list of organizations with police accountability projects is available online.

Some examples of national projects are:

Case-Related Data

Defense organizations do not have to rely solely on other sources for police misconduct data since it may be disclosed or occur in the cases you represent. You should think through what types of misconduct may become apparent through the course of a case and how you could categorize that information. Some ideas are below:

Disclosures

Prosecutors may be required to disclose certain police misconduct information, such as under Brady, that is shareable with others in your organization.  There may also be requirements to turn over lists of lawsuits to the defense. In certain cases, information may be disclosed as a result of a subpoena or court order.

Judicial Findings

Certain judicial findings of misconduct can also be considered sources of police misconduct data. Judicial decisions finding an officer incredible or suppressing evidence, for example, can be helpful to track.

Client Reports

If you do not have a system to document when a client reports potential police misconduct, consider setting up an informal way to track this.

Case Notes

You can often expose themes and patterns of misconduct by simply tracking details in your cases. For example, think about documenting every time a client is charged with drug possession and a lab disputes the finding or when an officer uses an untrustworthy confidential informant.

Case Management System

If you have an electronic case management system, consider tracking the law enforcement officers involved in each case and details about the arrest, charges, and case outcomes. This can help identify patterns of enforcement that officers and commands might engage in.  For example, you might find an officer frequently makes drug arrests that get dismissed or makes arrests at intervals that indicate they are under a quota system.

Background Data 

Basic background data on police departments is essential to starting any misconduct tracking project. Often this information is considered public record, but must be requested through public record requests (sometimes called FOIAs). Below is sample language for each kind of request. Also see our tips for effective public record requests.

Request:

Department Rosters

Knowing all of the officers in an agency, not just those who have engaged in misconduct, is the best way to maintain the integrity of your database.  You will be better equipped to differentiate between officers, accurately link officers to their misconduct, and identify holes or errors in the data. General information on any officer, like their salary, promotion history, and assignments can be valuable. For that reason, it is best to obtain officer rosters for all the law enforcement agencies that you wish to track for at least the past few years.

A standard request might look like:

“For every employee in __ Department, please provide their last name, first name, middle name, agency start date, rank/title, command/precinct assignment, badge/shield number, and any other unique identifier for every year from 2011-2021."

*If you would also like to request payroll information, then you can also request additional data points like base salary, regular hours worked, overtime hours worked, and overtime pay. 

How to obtain:
  1. Check for this data on any “OpenData” websites in your city/state
  2. If your state has a POST (Police Officer Standards and Training) agency, submit a request to them for a list of all the officers, their department assignments, and any unique identifiers that the POST agency has created or is in the possession of
  3. In absence of a POST agency, or to get additional data points, try to submit a request to the law enforcement agency directly
  4. Submit a request to the government entity that manages payroll, they should have a complete list of every individual who has been paid by the department, including its officers

Department Commands/Precincts

Most law enforcement agencies have a hierarchical structure that determines where an officer works and who they report to.  This information helps identify which officers are working together, where misconduct is happening, and parse out structural, rather than individual, misconduct. For that reason, it is helpful to obtain a list of all Department commands and/or precincts and their reporting structure. 

A standard request might look like:

“Please provide a list of all the commands, units, and precincts in ___ Department to which an officer may be assigned.  If possible, please also provide their address, phone number, their supervisory command, and any abbreviations or codes."

How to obtain:
  1. Submit a record request directly to the law enforcement agency
  2. Check the agency's website, patrol guide, or new recruit training manuals for helpful insight into the command structure

Disciplinary Allegations and Dispositions

It’s helpful to know how agencies categorize allegations of misconduct so that you can mimic a similar structure in your database and evaluate their accountability system. For example, this will allow you to analyze whether officers with similar allegations are punished similarly. For every agency that has the ability to investigate and discipline officers, obtain a list of all the possible allegations they investigate and their possible outcomes.

A standard request might look like:

"Please provide a list of all the possible allegations that ____ investigates, including any specific allegation categories that are used (e.x. excessive force, unlawful search, etc.), the possible outcomes/dispositions of those allegations (e.x. substantiated, exonerated, etc.), and any disciplinary matrix or documentation used to determine discipline or penalties."

How to obtain:
  1. Submit a request to the investigatory agency or the department's Internal Affairs
  2. This information might exist in the Patrol Guide. Request that from an agency or look for one online
  3. If you are unable to obtain this information through public record request, begin compiling this list based on the allegations you have seen on investigations in your possession.

Patrol Guide/Department Documents

An agency’s patrol guide can provide helpful information about their polices, procedures, and internal structures. Having a copy of the patrol guide on hand can help you determine what police procedures are supposed to be and whether or not they were followed in specific cases. Additionally, it can provide you with data, like the command structure or disciplinary process, that you might otherwise be unattainable. 

Agency training manuals, study guides, or handbooks provided to new recruits or promoted officers can also provide insight into the department. 

A standard request might look like:

"Please provide a copy of the most recent patrol guide provided to officers"

"Please provide a copy of any training manuals given to new agency recruits"

How to obtain:
  1. Submit a FOIA to the Law Enforcement Agency
  2. Check online for any police training and promotion company websites that service the agency Sometimes, they will have copies of their guides uploaded online
     

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