PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Officer Derek Chauvin had more than a dozen misconduct complaints against him before he put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City officer who seized Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold, had eight. Ryan Pownall, a Philadelphia officer facing murder charges in the shooting of David Jones, had 15 over five years.
But the public didn’t know about any of that until the victims’ deaths.
Citizen complaints against police across the U.S. are largely kept secret, either under the law or by union contract — a practice some criminal justice experts say deprives the public of information that could be used to root out problem officers before it’s too late.
In recent years, there have been dozens of examples of officers who had numerous complaints against them of excessive force, harassment or other misconduct before they were accused of killing someone on duty.
Confidentiality “makes it really tough for the public to know just who it is they are dealing with and to know whether their department or any particular officer is one they would want out in the streets,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police behavior.
While the U.S. considers ways to reform American policing following the sometimes violent protests that erupted nationwide over Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, complaint data is getting renewed attention as a way to track and correct rogue officers and perhaps head off more serious instances of brutality.
Both Democratic and Republican reform bills in Congress would make officers’ disciplinary records public and create a national database of allegations — a shift in political will that didn’t exist just a few years ago.
Police advocates argue that withholding allegations is necessary to protect officers’ privacy and keep them safe. Police unions have fought in contract negotiations and in state legislatures for confidentiality. In some cases, records are erased after as little as two years.
“The unfettered release of police personnel records will allow unstable people to target police officers and our families for harassment or worse,” said Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York City. “A dangerous cop-hater only needs a police officer’s name, linked to a few false or frivolous complaints, to be inspired to commit violence.”
Personal information on officers is already being leaked online, according to an intelligence document from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, obtained by The Associated Press.
Police unions argue, too, that the overwhelming majority of complaints are deemed unsubstantiated after internal investigations. But that argument carries no weight with the many activists who say police departments tend to protect their own.
Out of about 5,000 complaints brought against New York City officers last year for offenses such as discourtesy, excessive force and abuse of authority, 24% were substantiated, according to the city’s independent Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Bowling Green State University criminologist Phil Stinson, who has collected data on thousands of police charged, investigated or convicted of crimes, said that most officers go through their careers with few complaints against them, and that generally a small percentage of officers account for an outsize share of complaints.
Stinson recalled an Atlanta officer who had a personnel file full of “frightfully similar” complaints from women of sexual misconduct. It wasn’t until his file was leaked to a local TV station that he faced any discipline.