Recent police killings have prompted several responses, ranging from “All Cops Are Bastards” to “it’s just a few bad apples.” However, as sociology professor Andrew Papachristos pointed out in a talk Wednesday night, the “just a few bad apples” proverb is incomplete: The remainder of the saying is that “these bad apples spoil the bunch.”

Papachristos, a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, recently used network science, or the study of interpersonal connections, to research police misconduct in Chicago. He discussed his research findings, as well as their implications, in a Q&A Zoom webinar hosted by One Book One Northwestern.

The first challenge Papachristos faced in his research was finding accurate data since, according to him, the secretive nature of police departments causes current data to underestimate police violence.

“The scale is much, much bigger than even our best data can allow us to understand,” Papachristos said. “Policing is a closed institution. It has a code of silence … How do you study something that doesn’t want to be studied?”

Papachristos ended up using data from the Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project, which has compiled all complaints filed against the Chicago Police Department for about 30 years. He used this information to draw a virtual map of dots, representing CPD officers, and grouped them based on their interactions with one another.

Of the 8,740 officers in his study, or about 70% of the entire CPD force, Papachristos found that just under half had at least one use of force complaint since 1990. Although only 4% of officers were responsible for a quarter of all use of force complaints, according to his research, officers who used force tended to cluster together on the map. Following complaints, some of these officers were moved to different departments and thus contributed to new clusters of officers using force.

“The use of force and how it’s been distributed throughout the department is decidedly not random,” Papachristos said. “These 4% of officers have been creating levels of harm far exceeding what we would expect by any random distribution of bad apples. They occupy vital positions, and they potentially contaminate people around them.”

In the short term, Papachristos argued that bias training and reforms, such as redistributing police funding, may be beneficial, although he cautioned that temporary reforms may hinder long-term ones.

“People use reforms to try and sanitize policing, and that’s just not possible,” Papachristos said. “But we can’t neglect the here and now. Just focusing on the systemic issues, which are of the utmost importance … won’t stop the spread of violence today. We need to think about that careful balancing act.”

Papachristos concluded that, although reforms are needed in the present, systemic change must be the end goal. He explained that singling out “bad apples” is not enough since the system itself fosters their development.

“Once a system is in place, the activity of that system, even regardless of individual motives, will continue to perpetuate these sorts of inequalities. We have to absolutely address these issues,” Papachristos said. “For far too long, that has been neglected in favor of this bad apples phenomenon.”

*Article thumbnail courtesy of Emma Chiu/North by Northwestern