U of C study shows cops at high risk of misconduct also at elevated risk for off-duty trouble

CHICAGO — Police officers with histories of on-the-job misconduct are also likelier to have reported instances of bad behavior while off-duty, according to a new study published Monday through the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

The study, which examined 10 years of Chicago Police Department data as part of implementing the federal consent decree, found that police misconduct was predictable based on an officer’s history of complaints. It suggested that a relatively simple system of tracking past complaints to prevent future incidents could have a public value of “infinity,” considering the potential to avoid costly lawsuits that result from high-profile incidents of officer misconduct.

Payments to settle lawsuits stemming from allegations of police misconduct routinely cost Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars annually. The City Council in March approved payments totaling more than $57 million to settle three such cases. Between 2021 and 2023, settlement payments totaled more than $220 million.

Historically, CPD officers who work in “Tier 1” districts — those of the CPD’s 22 patrol districts that see the highest levels of violence and other serious felony offenses — are the subjects of more civilian misconduct complaints, especially officers who work in specialized, plainclothes units, though uniformed patrol officers are also the frequent subjects of complaints.

The newly released study also showed that while the officers at highest risk of misconduct make up a small percentage of the force overall, members of that group were at “greatly elevated risk” for on- and off-duty reports of bad behavior.

Researchers found that 1% of officers deemed the highest risk were 6.7 times more likely to receive complaints about on-duty misconduct and 6.2 times more likely to receive complaints off the job, whether about domestic incidents, issues with drugs or alcohol or off-duty altercations.

“It suggested that there might be something going on in that officer’s life or career that is affecting both,” said co-author Gregory Stoddard, a senior research director at the Crime Lab.

As part of the project, Stoddard said researchers led a series of focus groups with police officers of different ranks within the department, focused on “what keeps (them) up at night” and the kinds of bad events they would ideally be able to foresee and prevent.

The officers, Stoddard said, had a range of responses, from off-duty life stress such as aging parents or relationship problems to issues more directly related to work, such as “responding to grisly scenes.”

Whether preceding complaints resulted from officers’ on-duty stress infecting their private lives or vice versa, Stoddard said his team’s findings suggested that treating overall officer well-being may produce a public good.

“If you had an intervention that can help address some of those underlying issues, you might see both improvements to officer wellness as well as increased accountability,” he said.

Chicago Tribune’s Sam Charles contributed.