“Police Subculture Encourages Officer Misconduct,” Jammed Up, by Kane & White


Jammed Up is a  study of what leads to “career-ending misconduct” by police, based on NYPD personnel records from 1972 to 1993.

The data and findings are fascinating and useful for any critic of policing, especially the NYPD, and especially at this moment in time, when the FBI is in the midst of a corruption probe into the department that has already led to the indictment of several commanders and the suicide of another.

However, the study suffers from a sloppiness of language that could lead some to false conclusions about incidents of misconduct and what leads to them.

The term “career-ending misconduct” is itself misleading, particularly when used as it is in the book, to describe and categorize “officers who engage in career-ending misconduct.” This makes it sound like the department has defined a category of misconduct that when committed results in being fired.

This could not be further from the truth.

All terminations from the NYPD, no matter the conduct, are subjective – subject to the decision of the Commissioner, with all the possible biases and pressures that could make him more or less likely to fire or not fire an officer or category of officers.

Furthermore, to reach the level of being fired or not by the commissioner, an officer’s misconducted must be reported, recorded, and recommended for discipline by a chain of command that may have the same biases and pressures as the Commissioner.

Implying that there is a category of misconduct that inevitably leads to being fired stifles an exploration about whether there may instead or additionally be categories of officers who are more likely to be fired for the same conduct for which other officers are not fired, such as black officers or lower-ranking officers.

Indeed, the study finds that both categories of officers are more likely to “engage in career-ending misconduct” than the average officer.

The finding that more black officers “engage in career-ending misconduct” even creates an apparent contradiction within the data, because the study also finds that the higher percentage of black officers a department has, the fewer complaints of misconduct it receives.

The authors suggest that perhaps black officers are more likely to “engage in career-ending misconduct” but that having more of them on the force somehow encourages other officers to engage in less.

I would posit that a simpler explanation is that black officers are less likely to engage in misconduct, driving rates of reported misconduct down as their proportion grows, but that their lack of engaging in misconduct is interpreted as a lack of doing their job, and thus ironically becomes “career-ending misconduct.”

This is likely compounded by the fact that black officers may be more likely to report other officers for misconduct, further driving down rates of reported misconduct, but resulting in an even higher percentage of black officers being fired for whistleblowing – a well-documented category of “career-ending misconduct.”

This exact chain of events has played out in another recent NYPD scandal – that of black officers being fired for refusing to enforce and reporting racially-biased, quota-based policing, which has received ample reports of misconduct since the advent of stop-and-frisk policing, right here in NYC.

The finding that the higher an officer is ranked, the less likely he or she is to “engage in career-ending  misconduct” suffers from the obvious critique that both the police union and department are more likely to defend the misconduct of higher-ranking officers. The current FBI probe of the NYPD and indictments suggest the opposite of the present study’s findings – that higher-ranking NYPD officers are more likely to engage in more serious misconduct than their lower-ranking peers.

Another finding of the study is that officers who are the sons or daughters of other officers are less likely to “engage in career-ending misconduct,” and the authors suggest this is because they have more respect for the profession, but this could once again be more simply explained by the a tendency of the department and union to defend more entrenched officers, which in these cases would also be known as nepotism.

The linguistic problem with calling officers who are fired “officers who engage in career-ending misconduct” is compounded by the fact that the authors repeatedly use the shorthand “officers who engage in misconduct.”

In these instances, it is unclear if the authors are referring to all documented cases of misconduct to which they have access, or only to the cases of career-ending misconduct with which their study is primarily concerned. Either way, the shorthand is extremely problematic.

At the very least, the authors have an obligation to say “officers who engage in misconduct documented by the department,” but they do not. Every time they state that black officers are most likely to “engage in misconduct,” for example, this claim is simply unsupported by their data.

Even if they are referring to every incident of misconduct for which they have records (not simply instances of career-ending misconduct), this still only shows that black officers are most likely to have their misconduct documented by the department.

Even saying that black officers are most likely to engage in reported misconduct would not be supported by the data, as it is unclear if every incident of misconduct reported by the public or other officers was actually documented by the department, or if racial bias factored into the probability that the department documented incidents of officer misconduct.

Of course, I know what Kane and White mean by “officers who engage in career-ending misconduct” – they mean officers who are fired for misconduct. I just wish the authors would have used this more active, clearer language, because I believe it would have led to a more active, clearer analysis of their findings, which I will return to.

The authors also repeatedly state that police use of excessive force is “rare,” citing the fact that it is reported in about 0.3% of police encounters. First, they should really state that this is “documented use of excessive force,” because a majority of use of excessive force possibly goes unreported and/or undocumented.

Second, there seems to be no need to qualify this percentage as “rare” rather than just state the percentage. It is unclear, compared to what, this rate of use of excessive force is “rare.” By any appropriate comparison I can think of, it is the opposite of “rare.”

It is significantly higher than the rate at which police in other developed countries are reported to use excessive force, and if 0.3% of all citizen-to-citizen encounters resulted in the use of excessive force, the world would be absolute chaos.

If anything, it would be more accurate to make those comparisons and conclude that U.S. police are reported to use excessive force far more than the police forces of other developed countries. At the very least, and perhaps most objectively, the authors could simply state the percentage and not qualify it as “rare.”

At times, the authors do engage in more nuanced analysis of what could lead black officers to “engage in career-ending misconduct,” including more difficult assignments in more high crime precincts; and they acknowledge that officers are more likely to report and be punished for corruption than excessive force. However, these occasional discussions do not make up for the misleading or inaccurate language throughout, which leads even the authors away from perhaps the most important analysis of “career-ending misconduct” – why some of the wort, most violent, most corrupt officer are not fired and instead rise through the ranks of the NYPD and other police departments.

Those critiques of the language and analysis aside, the findings of the study are still fascinating and useful, and actually officer some insight into that question.

The most interesting findings occur in chapter seven, when the authors overlay their data with theories of criminology.

They find that as people become police officers – go through training and join the force – they become increasingly prone to engage in and defend misconduct – excessive force, corruption, etc – committed by themselves and other officers.

In other words, their data shows that a police subculture exists and it encourages misconduct, turning some relatively good people into bad cops:

Research suggests that the influence of the police subculture is so strong that it causes individuals to adopt the definitions of their department no matter how strongly they originally opposed them…as recruits transitioned from academy to the workforce, their attitudes concerning deviance became much more permissive. (139)

Police subculture…is responsible for teaching officers about the bulk of the deviant acts they come to accept as an inherent aspect of their job…it teaches officers to perceive situations, events, and individuals in a distorted way that is unique to the policing profession. (143)

The study also thoroughly refutes the concept that Broken Windows policing reduces crime. The data – the most comprehensive data set assembled to date – shows quite simply that “patterns of over-policing led to increased violent crime” (111).

The data also shows that policing in NYC has not been distributed to communities based on their crime rates, but based on their racial and economic makeup, resulting in poor communities of color being policed disproportionate to their rates of crime:

Stop and frisk activities were disproportionately focused on the, “poorest neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of minority citizens, even after controlling for rates of crime and physical disorder in those places.” (63)

As noted, excessive policing leads to an increase in violent crime, thus creating a vicious circle in poor communities of color where more policing leads to increased violent crime, which leads to more policing, which leads to more violent crime.

This also reverses the chicken-and-egg relationship that most people believe about policing: that more crime results in more policing (and the belief that areas with more policing have it because they have had more crime), and instead shows that more policing results in more crime (and thus that areas with more crime have it because they have had more policing).

The study also shows that over-policing, especially as implemented by Broken Windows policing, led to more reports of police misconduct and a deterioration in police-community relations, “including a 75 percent increase in civil rights claims against police, and a 60 percent increase in the number of civilian complaints” (63).

The study also clearly shows that rates of documented police misconduct spike when and where gentrification occurs (113 – 118).

Essentially, the data suggests that less policing makes neighborhoods more safe from both police misconduct and criminal violence, and the most comprehensive study to date shows that more policing leads to more violent crime, and police subculture breeds misconduct.

Also published on Medium.

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