USA Today has scored a coup. It has partnered with police accountability nonprofit Invisible Institute to obtain misconduct records from around the nation. These paint a pretty bleak picture of American policing — not just in the number of incidents, but in the number of incidents that go unpunished.
Public records requests have resulted in thousands of documents detailing at least 200,000 incidents of alleged misconduct, along with more than 100,000 internal investigations. The database is completely searchable and leads readers, reporters, researchers, etc. directly to the underlying documents.
Most misconduct involves routine infractions, but the records reveal tens of thousands of cases of serious misconduct and abuse. They include 22,924 investigations of officers using excessive force, 3,145 allegations of rape, child molestation and other sexual misconduct and 2,307 cases of domestic violence by officers.
Dishonesty is a frequent problem. The records document at least 2,227 instances of perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses or falsifying reports. There were 418 reports of officers obstructing investigations, most often when they or someone they knew were targets.
Less than 10% of officers in most police forces get investigated for misconduct. Yet some officers are consistently under investigation. Nearly 2,500 have been investigated on 10 or more charges. Twenty faced 100 or more allegations yet kept their badge for years.
The last number is perhaps the most concerning. Without effective deterrents in place, there’s nothing stopping officers from spending years under investigation while still earning a paycheck and, possibly, being allowed to directly interact with the public. Some agencies pull the trigger quickly when officers misbehave repeatedly, but the investigation found there are many that almost never pull a cop’s certification, no matter how many misconduct complaints/lawsuits they’ve racked up.
Decertifying law enforcement officers can slow the roll of “gypsy cops” — ones that wander from department to department violating policies, rights, and laws, traveling under the opacity provided to them by restrictive public records laws and union agreements. But since decertification so rarely happens, the worst cops can land top law enforcement gigs simply by looking for work in small communities unlikely to have the resources to fully investigate candidates for these openings.
That’s what happened in a small Ohio town. Amsterdam town officials hired David Cimperman as their new police chief. It was only after he engaged in a shitload of official misconduct that anyone started asking questions.
[Town officials] found forms featuring the mayor’s apparently forged signature that David Cimperman used to add more than 30 officers to the town’s police roster – one for every 16 residents. Many never did any paid police work for the town, logging hours instead for a private security business that state investigators say Cimperman ran on the side. He tried to outfit them with high-end radios. The riot gear and other surplus military equipment he bought with taxpayer money are missing.
One phone call to Cimperman’s former boss in New Philadelphia could have prevented this. Cimperman had been fired from that police department for… well, just about everything.
They hired a chief without knowing he’d been fired for perjury, quit a job as his bosses started investigating missing police equipment and was charged with a felony for tampering with police radios to make untraceable phone calls.
Fired twice from one department, Cimperman simply went somewhere and took a position giving him a lot of unearned power. This sort of story has been repeated multiple times around the nation. The records obtained through this investigation show multiple officers with long rap sheets obtaining high-level positions in other departments thanks to years of minimal accountability and the opacity that accompanies so many internal law enforcement documents.
The new database is an invaluable tool — one that will continue to grow as more records roll in. National exposure of endemic law enforcement problems may nudge a few agencies to clean house and encourage even the smallest communities to vet incoming law enforcement officers and officials more thoroughly.