At least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the USA have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past decade, an investigation by USA TODAY Network found.

Despite their role as public servants, the men and women who swear an oath to keep communities safe can generally avoid public scrutiny for their misdeeds.

The records of their misconduct are filed away, rarely seen by anyone outside their departments.Police unions and their political allies have worked to put special protections in place ensuring some records are shielded from public view, or even destroyed.

Reporters from USA TODAY, its 100-plus affiliated newsrooms and the nonprofit Invisible Institute in Chicago have spent more than a year creating the biggest collection of policemisconduct records.

Obtained from thousands of state agencies, prosecutors, police departments and sheriffs, the records detail at least 200,000 incidents of alleged misconduct. The records also identify more than 30,000 officers who were decertified by 44 states.

We’re three of the reporters who worked on this project. Ask us anything!

Mark Nichols is a data journalist and part of the national investigations team at USA TODAY and the USA TODAY Network. His data analysis and reporting on lead contamination in drinking water systems across the U.S. led to an award-winning series of stories in 2016. He also was a contributing writer to USA TODAY Network’s nationwide investigation of teacher discipline, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting. Follow him on Twitter: @nicholsmarkc

Eric Litke is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY Network. He has reported on the criminal justice system for over a decade, including a yearlong examination of sentencing inequity and lack of oversight in Wisconsin. He also writes for PolitiFact Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter: @ericlitke

James Pilcher is an investigative reporter for the Cincinnati/Kentucky Enquirer and USA TODAY Network. He has been a practicing journalist for the past 25 years. He's won numerous journalism awards and was part of the reporting team at The Enquirer that won the 2018 Pulitzer for Local Reporting and recently published stories on sex trafficking and policemisconduct. James teaches investigative and data journalism as the Journalist in Residence for the University of Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @jamespilcher and Reddit: Phelch66

Recent bylines

Proof: - - -

Edit: We're gonna call it for now, but thanks everyone for your questions and your interest. We've appreciated the chance to chat on this important topic. And remember, if you have specific tips about cops you'd like to see examined in our ongoing reporting, send them to [email protected]. -Eric

Comments: 167 • Responses: 55  • Date: 

brandoncook198555 karma

You say 85,000 officers have been investigated for misconduct or disciplined across the country. How do you define misconduct - are we talking about criminal violations or simply violating a departmental regulation? How many of those 85,000 officers were found to have not done anything wrong?

usatoday43 karma

So the 85,000 officers were investigated by their respective state agency for violations ranging from insubordination to felony convictions. We made no value judgments as to what constituted misconduct - we left that up to the states. It wound up that we found 30,000 plus officers were decertified - basically lost their license to be a cop. About 10 percent of those were for drug or alcohol abuse, another 10 percent were for domestic abuse issues, but a good percentage were for false reporting or perjury. Thanks for the question. - James

Ifuckingloveredheads59 karma

85,000 officers were investigated by their respective state agency for violations ranging from insubordination to felony convictions

You really should break out that data better. It's really disingenous.

I talked back to my boss in a deragatory tone vs. I planted heroin on someone and /u/usatoday is going to treat it like it's the same thing.

demonspawn7913 karma

About 10 percent of those were for drug or alcohol abuse, another 10 percent were for domestic abuse issues, but a good percentage were for false reporting or perjury.

Disingenuous and downright lazy journalism. They had an agenda to push and just looked for any data to confirm their prejudice.

usatoday6 karma

Just to be clear, we included a chart in our story that broke down the reasons for officer decertification that we could determine from the data we received. We found at least 2,777 cases where officers were decertified for "dishonesty"- related issues -- perjury, false reporting, tampering with evidence or witnesses. That's about 9.1% of the 30,483 decertification cases in our dataset. -- Mark

dog_in_the_vent31 karma

a good percentage

What's the number, please.

usatoday6 karma

We found at least 2,777 instances where an officer was decertified for "dishonesty"-related charges, including perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses, or falsifying reports. -- Mark

dog_in_the_vent3 karma


That's 3.2% for anybody else who doesn't like math.

usatoday2 karma

Actually, it's about 9.1% of the 30,483 officers we have as decertified in our database. -- Mark

dog_in_the_vent5 karma

3.2% of total officers in the database, 9.1% of those who have been decertified.

usatoday4 karma

You'll want to use the decertified officers as the universe, for now. We haven't looked at all our disciplinary reports with that detail yet. -- Mark

usatoday10 karma

And remember, several states don't do such investigations. That includes California, which has the largest number of police officers in the U.S. So the numbers are limited. That 85,000 includes data from only 44 states. Delaware didn't provide information. - James

knowmansoul24 karma

Have you looked at other nations, to see how USA compares on police not facing repercussions for misconduct?

usatoday21 karma

That's a great question. To be honest, no we haven't because we've really had our hands full with the huge trove of documents from American agencies. That being said, it is a good idea to compare and see how other nations handle it and what their rates are. We will certainly file that away for a possible story angle. - James

usatoday22 karma

Hey everyone, Eric Litke here from Milwaukee. Excited to tackle your questions in this next hour or so. Remember, you can send any specific tips to us for use in this project at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected])

ClemPrime1320 karma

How do Police Officers who were involved in a shooting and were found to be in the wrong keep their jobs?

usatoday25 karma

That's a complicated subject. It depends on how "wrong" they were found to be. If internally, they were found to have violated policy, they might get a suspension instead of being fired because of union contract rules. Those negotiated contracts call for arbitration etc. in many cases. There have been many cases of officers being fired for fatal shootings but later reinstated by arbitrators under union rules. - James

usatoday18 karma

In addition, law enforcement is covered by a legal concept called "qualified immunity" where government officials are not liable for mistakes they made "honestly" in the line of duty, or if they don't intentionally break the law or violate someone's rights. - James

chumchilla20 karma

Any plans to investigate politicians who break laws and keep their jobs?

usatoday25 karma

We're planning to stick with investigating law enforcement who break laws and keep their jobs, for now. Unless you count county sheriffs as politicians...

v_b_300015 karma

What is the worst offense by an officer that you’ve seen get excused in order for them to remain on the job?

usatoday33 karma

I don't know about "worst" but we documented the career of an officer in northeast Ohio. He was fired for a felony conviction but reinstated. He was then fired for alleged perjury but later was again reinstated. He went on to become a police chief elsewhere in a small town: - James

usatoday25 karma

And we're going to continue digging through the records for more examples. - James

usatoday32 karma

We also found one officer who shot and killed six people over a 10-year period - all determined to be "justifiable" by prosecutors and police review boards. He was able to take a disability retirement from the department. - Mark

lonelyperson7489305815 karma

How long has it taken to find these 85,000?

usatoday22 karma

We've actually been gathering records on this since early 2017 in one form or another. The 85K out now are just a fraction of what we've assembled and are in the process of cleaning and analyzing. More to come later :-) -Eric

usatoday13 karma

Hey this is James Pilcher from Cincinnati. I worked on all of this, but primarily the story about police chiefs and how they can rise the ranks despite troubled pasts:

Ask me anything!

old_skul2 karma

James, did you uncover any data specific to Cincinnati? We have a long and troubled history of problems in our police department. But I've also had mostly good interactions with our local cops over the years.

usatoday2 karma

Good morning - sorry for the delayed response. We haven't found any specific Cincinnati stories yet, but we do have a lot of data from the department. We are still sifting through. There weren't many if any Cincinnati officers decertified by Ohio in recent years. Although I don't live in Cincinnati, I would agree that my interactions personally have been positive with CPD. I have written about police use of force here locally extensively including this story a few years ago:

NickoliTesla11 karma

What is the most common violation you observed?

Additionally, what age were most violators?

usatoday14 karma

With the data we've released covering officer decertifications, we found drugs and alcohol a common problem, along with assaults and violence. In terms of age of most officers, that's harder to determine. While we requested age or DOBs for officers, most state agencies and departments that sent us data did not include that information, or did not have it available. -- Mark

baking_bad11 karma

What needs to change so the these police are held accountable?

usatoday17 karma

This is a great question. And one without a simple answer. Some states (California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) don't even have a system in place to decertify officers with egregious misconduct. That'd be a basic way to start. And much of the system is cops (or former cops) providing oversight for themselves, which is something experts flag as a problem. This is an area we definitely want to dive into more as our series progresses. -Eric

dog_in_the_vent0 karma

Some states (California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) don't even have a system in place to decertify officers with egregious misconduct.

Are you sure about that?

Here's an example of CHP "removing peace officer powers" from "dozens" of officers suspected of falsifying overtime claims.

NJSP fired or forced to resign 4 officers in 2016 for "misconduct".

Here's Massachusetts SP suspending or arresting 8 officers for falsifying overtime.

No examples of RI police suspending anybody, which is odd though it would be a much smaller police force.

Care to elaborate on your claim?

ExtremeMuffin2 karma

I’m not the reporters and am only providing my reading into these stories. From what I can tell about the NJ and Mass cases they were fired or arrested however that doesn’t mean they were “decertified” meaning hypothetically they could get a job at another agency. The article about the California case says “removing peace officer powers” from those officers. That could mean decertified or it could mean while they are suspended they have had their badges taken away and do not have the authority of a peace officer. Again theoretically they could go and get a job at another agency.

usatoday3 karma

Your citations were for state troopers being removed by the state agency. The state agency does not remove officers at the local level in California. Same with New Jersey. Those stories and incidents involved state troopers. Neither state has a mechanism to remove local officers. That's not a value judgement as we are a local rule country. - James

usatoday10 karma

Good afternoon! Mark Nichols from USA TODAY here. Glad to be part of the conversation...

twep_dwep8 karma

What do you think of the Campaign Zero platform? They want to increase accountability in police misconduct cases by:

  • Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor's Office at the State level for cases of police violence
  • Require independent investigations of all cases where police kill or seriously injure civilians
  • Use federal funds to encourage independent investigations and prosecutions
  • Lower the standard of proof for Department of Justice civil rights investigations of police officers

usatoday4 karma

Those are all under consideration for sure. But this becomes a political situation as well. As you probably know, the current Justice Department under an order from the previous AG has backed off on such federal investigations into local police. And getting such changes past legislators who tend to back police and police unions is also difficult. - James

usatoday7 karma

This dataset is far bigger than the list of decertification we published last week. Those are only the cases where states took action to remove an officer’s law enforcement certification. In fact, they may not even be all of them given the state of public records compliance in this country. And again, those numbers don't include officers from states from New Jersey, California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Hawaii is just starting to implement a system, and New York is a few years into their new decertification system.

The USAT database includes hundreds of thousands of additional records, some of which are being processed. The USA TODAY plan is to release groups of data, and underlying records, throughout the course of the year. - James

SirLenzalot6 karma

Wow. Ever got paranoid since starting? Walking around with a recording device and such? Checking for any in your homes?

usatoday17 karma

We did get hung up on and ignored and perhaps lightly threatened along the way, but we're not exactly in a bunker. Maybe a little closer to the speed limit than normal... -Eric

usatoday9 karma

Well, I'm not at a point where I'm "paranoid" about this project. We'll see how it goes....-Mark

vaelroth5 karma

How many of those 85,000 officers cited for misconduct have had multiple citations?

usatoday10 karma

We've seen a couple of officers in our database who have been decertified more than once -- in different states. In the data we plan to release later this year dealing with internal affairs investigations, we see numerous officers with multiple "sustained" charges. -- Mark

vaelroth6 karma

Thanks for the reply and all the hard work!

usatoday10 karma

In the story about police chiefs, the personnel file of the individual we profiled was the size of a filing box. In addition to being fired twice, he wrecked a police car and had several other violations. - James

Ifuckingloveredheads5 karma

At least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the USA have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct

If I go and make a BS complaint because I'm unhappy with receiving a ticket and an investigation takes place does that count towards your stats?

usatoday2 karma

No. These were officers who were legitimately investigated by state officials from 44 different states. If the complaint was baseless, in most cases the complaint was thrown out before an investigation was launched. Thanks for the question. - James

turbotang4 karma

Thank you for your work. This kind of information could be a huge help to public. When do you plan on having the rest of the database put together?

usatoday6 karma

This is definitely a work in progress. We'll have more detailed reporting coming up on the decertified officers listed in the database. Our plan is to release groups of data, and underlying records, throughout the course of the year. We've gathered hundreds of thousands of records that we're still processing and analyzing. -Eric

zom83 karma

Investigated for misconduct.. as in a simple report against the officer? I know many officers who have had baseless misconduct charges brought against them. Does your 85,000 include those? Or are all these founded?

usatoday3 karma

The officers in the database we published are only those that have been decertified by their state. In other words there was an allegation that the state oversight agency deemed legitimate and serious enough to take away their ability to be a cop in that state. -Eric

profkakie2 karma

What has the reaction to this remarkable nationwide look been from law enforcement stakeholders and watchdogs?

usatoday7 karma

Always hard to say early on. We're hopeful this raises a red flag for those in charge of hiring cops around the country - a reminder to be diligent in backgrounding because people will be watching and who they hire affects the public trust. -Eric

usatoday7 karma

Thanks for the question! We're hoping that law enforcement agencies will see that we're serious about collecting these records and be more transparent. We've had to sue in many cases for open records that should have been easy to obtain. We're also looking hard at states where there is little to no statewide oversight over policing - including California, where there are the most officers but there is no decertification process. In addition, police officers' personnel files are off limits under open records laws in that state. - James

usatoday2 karma

Hey everybody! Thanks for tuning in - we're wrapping it up. But Mark, Eric and I will be checking back if anyone has a question later. This was fun and enlightening to us. - James

ZagiFlyer2 karma

Do you worry about repercussions/vengeance from corrupt police for making this data public?

usatoday2 karma

I would echo Eric's previous statements in that while we've had people yell at us and hang up and fight us legally for the records, there's never been any threats etc. While we might stick closer to the speed limit, we're not exactly sitting in a bunker. - James

KnowsGooderThanYou1 karma

Has this resulted in anything yet?

usatoday2 karma

Not really, but I think we're just getting started. It's going to take some time for decision makers to take a look at this and react. In addition, we've got more data etc. to come. - James

badamache1 karma

Are Police unions too strong? Apart from job protection due to violence, a lot of policemen seem overweight - I am assuming the union protects them from having to pass fitness tests?

usatoday1 karma

That's certainly a hot topic up for debate. We're not getting into the physical fitness aspect, but certainly unions have strong political ties that help create contracts that protect officers. Those protections have led to many reinstatements in very controversial cases in the past. But that is ultimately up to elected officials who agree to these contracts. - James

donutmutt1 karma

While going through the records, could you find any similarities behind the justifications for the crimes committed? What do you believe these acts stem from (training, prejudice etc.)?

usatoday4 karma

Good question, but it's real tough to generalize, but we did see some recurring categories of misconduct, stuff like drugs and alcohol, assaults, dishonesty, theft, use of force. And in most cases we're talking about actions that were against policy or ethical norms, but didn't result in criminal charges. -Eric

raarts1 karma

Did you only look at street cops or did you include any and all people in the police force?

usatoday2 karma

Our data covered any law enforcement officer in 44 states. We also did a story looking at how officers could become chiefs or sheriffs or stay in top roles despite troubled histories. You can look at that here: - James

Geicosellscrap1 karma

How do you investigate which cops let their family commit crimes?

Is there an investigation to determine who’s family?

usatoday2 karma

That's a tough question and issue as one would have to prove the officer "helped" the family commit a crime. We're only starting our investigation with data and documents involving law enforcement directly. But we have seen cases where officers have allegedly covered up for family members - one such officer became a chief and was listed in our story here. His name is Daniel Tindall and he's the first capsule profile in our larger story here: - James

Maurice_Clemmons1 karma

How do you respond to authoritarians who will justify any brutality dealt out by cops, regardless of how egregious it may be?

usatoday1 karma

I don't know specifically who you are referring to, but such change would probably have to come through the democratic process and voting someone else into those positions. - James

jetnguyen1 karma

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The team at /r/usatoday. That's who.

usatoday3 karma

That's why we think journalism is so important. Thanks! -Eric

usatoday1 karma

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

That's high praise indeed. Thank you. - James

MistaSmiles1 karma

Did you notice any geographical trends that stood out? There are pockets notorious for police corruption (e.g. Illinois), but I'd also be interested in rural vs. urban, etc.

usatoday3 karma

Those are great questions. That's part of the analysis that's ongoing on the larger pile of police records that we have that haven't (yet) been publicly released. Hopefully we can answer some of those questions, though any generalizations like that are tricky since the data will always be spotty due to the difficulty getting records -Eric

usatoday3 karma

I would also add that we haven't gotten records from the vast majority of departments in this country. We're at about 800-1000 departments, and there are 18,000 departments nationally. One thing I noticed is that there are small departments that use officers on a part-time basis who may have 2-3 other policing jobs elsewhere. That makes for an interesting and noteworthy dynamic. - James

bleedingpapercut1 karma

Were you surprised at the findings?

usatoday2 karma

Good morning. Yes, there were several things we uncovered in our reporting that were surprising. The fact that California, for example, has the most police officers in the country. Yet the state doesn't really regulate policing at all and leaves it to local departments. Secondly, a big surprise for me personally was the way small departments use patchwork scheduling and hiring to keep their policing going. It is not uncommon for an officer to work for 3-4 different departments, all on a part-time basis with no benefits. Rural policing is a major issue that we are going to continue to explore. - James

bertiebees1 karma

Why do you think your background checking is more thorough then every department in the country whose professed job is investigating criminal activity?

usatoday12 karma

That question is really the core of why we launched this project. Why SHOULD someone without law enforcement powers be able to get more information that a hiring agency had when making a decision? But that's what we found throughout the country - departments that simply aren't putting in the time to talk to prior employers, pull personnel files and do other due diligence that is typical in most professions. -Eric

usatoday13 karma

In some cases it's lack of effort, in other cases towns are knowingly hiring chiefs with misconduct histories because they still felt that was the best candidate in a shallow pool. The national lack of qualified officers, particularly for openings at small departments with low pay, is a key reason bad cops are getting second and fifth chances. -Eric

iwviw1 karma

Have you guys been harassed or threatened by cops at all?

usatoday1 karma

I'll circle back to an answer from earlier - We did get hung up on and ignored and perhaps lightly threatened along the way, but we're not exactly in a bunker. Maybe a little closer to the speed limit than normal... -Eric

brettmagnetic1 karma


usatoday16 karma

There are about 750,000 police officers in this country and our reporting only showed that fewer than 10 percent were ever investigated for any misconduct. Now, we've only scratched the surface as our data only includes about 10 percent of all officers in the country. That being said - and my colleagues would probably agree with me - the vast majority of police are honest and hard working. The problem is that the current system makes it easy for someone who isn't to stay an officer. - James

Tornath30990 karma

So are you doing anything with this data? Is anything of substance going to come of this or will it generate a bit or outrage and then be forgotten because nothing fucking happens? What practical use does all this have?

usatoday2 karma

The project is basically two-pronged - gather the data and expose it to light of data so local reporters, local citizens and hiring agencies have easier access to data that is historically hard to get. But we'll also be unrolling a series of stories analyzing the data and putting it in context. The practical use is getting this in front of decision makers and identifying ways to improve. We hope our reporting does that. -Eric

realitybites3650 karma

Why did you push the “hands up don’t shoot” lie instead of reporting facts?

usatoday2 karma

We feel we did report facts first. We disclosed how many officers were investigated for misconduct at a statewide level in 44 states and how many were decertified. That is factual. We also broke down what offenses made up the most decertifications and most were NOT for excessive use of force. We feel this data will help guide the national conversation into policing that is already going on. - James

4skinphenom690 karma

Were there any cops who you investigated that did something wrong but for the right reasons?

usatoday3 karma

Good morning. We haven't really gotten that far in the reporting. We were looking at the reasons the states gave for the investigations and the decertifications as a whole. We haven't found anything yet where an officer may have been treated unfairly by the system, but it certainly is an angle to look out for. Thanks. - James

bornabastard-1 karma

Do something useful instead of making painting police with a broad brush. Isn’t there something better you can spend your time on? At least don’t everyone reading this the disservice than making the broad claim that there were 85,000 criminal police officers. It’s the pathetic journalists like you, pushing motivated agendas at the expense of decent people, that make me less trustful of the media environment.

usatoday2 karma

If you read carefully, you'll see it's not "criminal" police officer but those that have been investigated. And certainly this is a small percentage of police officers in the country. But it seems important that the people we give badges and guns to and entrust with our safety should be people who have proven, well, trustworthy. -Eric

knumbknuts-2 karma

Have you let /r/Bad_Cop_No_Donut know about this AMA?

usatoday0 karma

We did now :-) Thanks for the reminder! -Eric

buzzlite-9 karma

USA Today is still a thing?

usatoday18 karma

As far as we know. We're still getting paid as of last Friday. And we did technically triple the size of our investigative team late last year to do more stuff like this, so there's that :-) -Eric