Philip Stinson: Ex-Cop Who Keeps The Country’s Best Data On Police Misconduct

A very enlightening interview with Philip Stinson, an ex-cop who has dedicated the past decade to the study of police crimes across the U.S.

Police officers are considered to be the face of the law. However, are they that law-abiding and innocent themselves? How many crimes have law enforcement officers committed over the last decade? We asked the person who knows everything about it. Philip Stinson, Ph.D., is the ex-cop turned criminologist who painstakingly tracks police crime across the U.S. since 2005. Nowadays, his database on police misconduct in the U.S. is the biggest and the fullest. When major outlets and agencies needed data on how often police officers are charged with on-duty killings, they all turn to Mr. Stinson.
When did you start collecting data and what sources do you use?
Philip Stinson
I started collecting data at the beginning of 2005. I study crime by non-federal sworn law enforcement officers across the US, so everybody in my database has been arrested or charged in some way. That includes state troopers, deputy sheriffs, police officers and park rangers. We rely on a lot of news articles. I set up 48 Google news alerts that constantly crawl the Google news search engine. That’s how we develop our initial data. We also collect court records and videos from local news. We’re in our 12th year of data collection and we’ve fully coded and analyzed 7 years of the data. We’re working right now on year eight which is the year 2012.
What inspired you to do this? Has it got anything to do with your experiences as an officer?
Philip Stinson
That has something to do with things I saw years ago when I was a police officer for a few years. Some of it has to do with watching friends and colleagues who’ve gotten into trouble when they were police officers, and also it just came up in a graduate school class as to whether crime by police officers did happen often. I thought it did, but my classmates didn’t so I started looking into it. Then as I started to develop it, I ended up deciding that I would use that for my Ph.D. dissertation after I had done a pilot study. The first three years of the data with 109 variables is what I did for my doctoral dissertation which I finished in 2009. And then when I came to Bowling Green State University in 2009 as a professor, I continued to collect data. I expanded the types of data that we collect and analyze and then we moved from a paper-based system to a fully computerized system.
This sounds like a lot of work. Are there any people you work with?
Philip Stinson
Yeah. Right now I have a staff of four research assistants who each work 4 days a week with me all summer. They work on various different tasks. During the academic year, I have about twelve research assistants.
Do you think there is a database that can be compared to yours?
Philip Stinson
No, not really. There are a few groups that collect information but nobody that has the type of database that we have and the ability to do these types of statistical analyses. Today we actually reached our 10,000th police officer in our database. We have had almost 12,000 arrest cases involving police officers since the beginning of 2005 but only 10,000 officers because some of them got arrested more than once and some of them have multiple victims. These officers are employed by over 3800 non-federal law enforcement agencies in almost 1600 counties and independent cities across the country in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nobody has that kind of data.
Concerning the data you have and its analyses, what crimes are the most common among the police?
Philip Stinson
Assault is the most common. We tracked every offense that police officers were charged with, and we calculated the most serious offenses in each of the arrest cases. Looking at the stats from 2005-2011, there are 6,724 cases. If you combine simple assault and aggravated assault, that’s 21.5 % of all the cases. Drunk driving is next. Then fondling and rape and then drug cases.
Do you track the demographics of who is assaulted? Are they mostly people of color?
Philip Stinson
The problem is that with the raw data sources that we have, we can’t determine the race of the victim quite often even with court records. It’s not in news articles in most cases. But we do track the race of the arrested officer. This is the biggest limitation in my research because all criminologists want to collect data on race but we just don’t have it.
What kind of crimes do police officers mostly get away with?
Philip Stinson
Stealing and assault. They get away with stealing because they’re riding around in the middle of the night and nobody’s paying attention to them. They get away with assault because policing is violent and people recognize that the officers have a violent job. So most on-duty violence by police officers is excused under the context that they were just trying to arrest someone or quell a disturbance.
What about murders?
Philip Stinson
Here’s the deal. Our best guess is over 1000 times a year where on-duty police officers shoot and kill somebody. In almost every one of those cases the officer is cleared because they are found to have been justified to use deadly force. The legal standard that the Supreme Court has set is that a police officer can use deadly force when they have a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury to themselves or somebody else. Out of about a 1000 cases last year, only 18 officers were charged! This year we had 7. Now is the highest we’ve seen since I’ve been calculating it. But we’re dealing with such a small number – 18. We had only 47 over the decade from 2005-2015 where an officer was arrested and charged when they’d killed somebody. In well over 99.5% of these cases, the officer is found to be justified. In most of those cases, just because they had the right to shoot, we’re not sure that they should’ve shot. So the question is: in all those cases where they’re cleared were they really justified? What we’re finding is that the statements made by the shooter and other officers at the scene sometimes were inconsistent with the video evidence and that’s why they got charged. So it makes you wonder, what about all the many other people that are killed by the police each year? Are any of those cases really not justified? In other words, did cops get away with murder?
Do you think it’s because of the lack of videos that most of police officers are not criminally charged?
Philip Stinson
Yes. But we also see several factors present in the cases where the officer is charged. We’ve had 72 cases in the last eleven and half years. There’s video evidence in the form of dashcams, body cams, surveillance and security video and smartphone video. The problem with smartphone video is people don’t start recording until they see that there’s a problem so they don’t capture the beginning of the incident. There are also cases where the officer shoots somebody in the back when the person is unarmed. And a lot of times when the officer is charged, it’s based on another officer saying he wasn’t justified to use deadly force. But in terms of officers being less than truthful in their statements and reports after these shootings, the video evidence is really important. The most troubling video is that of Michael Slager in North Charleston when he shot a man in the back for no reason and his first thought was to cover it up by planting evidence. That should tell people a lot about police work.
How likely is it for a fellow cop to come out and testify against a colleague?
Philip Stinson
It only happens a few times a year because those are the cases where an officer gets charged. So it doesn’t happen much. We have no way of knowing, of almost 1000 cases each year where officers don’t get charged after killing somebody if the officers just got away with murder or manslaughter. Even if it’s one, that’s still too many.
Are the conditions the same for a police officer and a regular citizen when they commit the same crime?
Philip Stinson
No. Police officers don’t like arresting other police officers for anything. So if I shot somebody, they start with the assumption that I murdered him. If a police officer committed the same crime, they start with the assumption that he was justified. So they’re working with a different set of rules.
From your experience as a cop, are there any happenings in the police station or on patrol that regular people won’t know?
Philip Stinson
I think that what I saw with some police officers was that there were drug problems with some of them, some of them stole things, and I saw police officers who assaulted citizens for no reason at all, both people who were arrested and people who weren’t.
Why do you think most police departments refuse to divulge data on shootings?
Philip Stinson
Well, right now there isn’t any law that requires them to in a way that they are forced to do so. And that’s a huge problem.
What do you think should be done about that going forward?
Philip Stinson
I don’t think it’s enough to just have training in de-escalation and force mitigation. Just as the chief said in Dallas, we need people to become police officers that are from these communities and have lived there their whole lives and still live there. Not people that just put 8 hours a day in. I grew up in a racially integrated family so every night there was somebody with a different color at the dinner table, and that’s a different experience than most people in this country have. That’s a huge problem because there’s so much distrust. I think what police officers need to be doing instead of chasing 13 and 14-year-old Black boys around are to be mentoring them to be future officers. There are so many different changes that have to be made. Because officers don’t trust black people, black people don’t trust them for good reason. And how do you fix that? What I do know is that the only reasons we’re having these discussions are because of the recent videos. These stories used to be local news, but now they’re national and international so at least we’re having the discussions at all levels and that’s huge progress. Because what we’re seeing right now is business as usual. Police officers have always been killing people but nobody was paying any attention.

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