Study: Civilian Complaints Can be Used to Predict Future Police Misconduct

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke had at least 20 civilian complaints filed against him before he fatally shot teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. Many of those were determined to be unfounded, but a new study has found these types of complaints can be used as a predictive tool to identify officers who are the most likely to commit serious misconduct.

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago examined several years’ worth of civilian complaints and found that Chicago police officers with the highest number of complaints are responsible for significantly higher share of civil litigation payouts.

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“The relationship is really pronounced for the very worst group of officers,” said Max Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law who co-wrote the study.

Schanzenbach and co-author Kyle Rozema, a fellow at the U of C Law School, looked at more than 50,000 citizen complaints filed between 2002 and 2014 and controlled for factors like officer age and beat location to give what they call a “risk-adjusted measure” of the complaints. They then took that time frame, split it down the middle and tried to determine whether officers with significant toals of complaints during the first half were more likely to commit more serious misconduct in the second half.

In the study, they estimate that by removing the worst 1 percent of officers in terms of civilian complaints – about 120 officers – from regular street patrol, the city of Chicago would have saved more than $6 million in litigation payouts between 2009 and 2014.

“The relationship is really pronounced for the very worst group of officers,” Schanzenbach said. “Those who get in the top 5 percent and top 1 percent of civilian complaints also generate by far the largest number of lawsuits, largest number of damage awards and are also much more likely to have excessive supervisory complaints and excess off-duty complaints.”

In Van Dyke’s case, his complaint total would have put him in the top 3 percent among his peer officers, according to the study. The city ultimately agreed to pay McDonald’s family $5 million in 2014 before a lawsuit – or murder charges against Van Dyke – could be filed.

Van Dyke was eventually charged with murder in 2015 – more than a year after the shooting.

Schanzenbach believes the Chicago Police Department should use these risk-adjusted complaints to form some type of early warning system for officers who are the most frequent offenders in order to prevent more serious misconduct and civil litigation down the road.

He says that could include things like internal investigations into a specific officer or reassignment to desk duty.

This doesn’t mean every officer would be entered into this system. In fact, the study found that 90 percent of Chicago officers have received either zero or only a small handful of complaints and require no targeted intervention.

“What an early system might do is say, this is somebody that needs to be talked to and this is somebody who might need to be investigated,” Schanzenbach said.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re ipso facto removed from the force. Maybe the worst 1 percent I could go along with that because how bad the worst 1 percent are in terms of civil rights litigation, including the damages and the number of lawsuits being filed, is truly shocking.”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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