Study on corrupt police ‘crews’ is a reminder that cop culture must change

Bad behavior in police departments can be like a raging wildfire or an infectious disease.

Misconduct is contagious. And when wayward officers are reassigned, they can continue to have a negative influence on their peers, making the problem worse, according to a 2019 study published in Nature Human Behavior analyzing the London Metropolitan Police Service.

For every 10% increase in the proportion of a police officer’s peers with a history of misconduct, that officer’s chances of engaging in wrongdoing in the next three months rose by nearly 8%, the research by a pair of behavioral economists found.

A new study closer to home, focusing on the Chicago Police Department between 1971 and 2018, solidifies these findings — and further exposes how problem officers often travel in packs.

The research by a Northwestern University team led by sociologist Andrew Papachristos brings to mind the torture allegations against the late disgraced Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “midnight crew,” as well as the abuse accusations that continue to besmirch retired Detective Reynaldo Guevara and his underlings of him.

While the NU study doesn’t name Burge and Guevara or any other infamous officers, it serves as another glaring reminder of why the culture within CPD must be dismantled.

Other reforms will be for naught if a toxic culture isn’t replaced with attitudes and practices that strengthen accountability and keep violence and other misconduct from spreading like a cancerous tumor.

Flagging ‘hot spots’ for misconduct

Papachristos and his team identified 160 potentially problematic CPD “crews” with an algorithm using arrest reports, citizen complaints, lawsuits and use-of-force reports during the nearly five-decade period.

Even though research ethics prevented Papachristos from pinpointing specific officers in those crews, the information will be made available to CPD so a system can be created in which possible patterns of abuse and criminal behavior can be flagged, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Andy Grimm reported .

“Police love data as a way to identify ‘hot spots’ for criminal activity,” as Papachristos put it. “This is data identifying the hot spots inside the department.”

It’s logical — and in the police department’s best interest — to seize this opportunity and use the findings to weed out corruption and get rid of the ‘bad apple’ officers. It’s these officers who are largely responsible for the erosion of Chicagoans’ trust in law enforcement.

Additionally, the NU study should lead other entities to ensure they have enough effective personnel to help address the problem. That includes the city’s Law Department, which has had a backlog of police discharge cases attributed by some to a staff shortage, WBEZ reported last month.

The quicker officers who engage in illegal conduct are taken off the streets, the better it will be for residents — and for the many honest men and women in uniform who are trying to make a positive difference in the communities they serve.

Clearly, the cops in the crews — 4% of the 30,000 officers investigated for the NU study — were no role models.

They were involved in 22% of all police shootings during the nearly 50-year time period, according to the data. They also accounted for 14% of all citizen complaints and nearly 30% of all civil rights lawsuits against the city.

What’s worse, the payouts in those lawsuits were four times more compared to the cases involving officers who were not identified as part of a crew.

a matter of will

Street gangs snuff out lives and damage the community. The gangs among those who carry CPD badges are just as harmful, if not worse, since they took an oath to serve and protect.

To identify the police crews, Papachristos actually applied the same methodology he used to analyze gang members and identify likely victims of gun violence.

Papachristos and his team also created a profile for potential corrupt crews by looking at the case of former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his cohorts and the actions of groups of officers in two other high-profile scandals from the mid-1990s and early 2000s .

CPD, mandated to make reforms by a 2019 federal consent decree, cannot afford another crisis tied to a gaggle of problem or corrupt officers. No Chicagoan wants to see that either.

The department must find the will to overhaul a culture that has allowed these unscrupulous police crews to exist and flourish.

Combatting crime inside the department is as urgent as combatting it elsewhere.

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