How States Are Moving to Police Bad Cops

Minneapolis police officers assembled near the Fourth Police Precinct on March 30, 2016, after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that no charges will be filed against two Minneapolis police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man.

Minneapolis police officers assembled near the Fourth Police Precinct on March 30, 2016, after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that no charges will be filed against two Minneapolis police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via AP)

April 8, 2016

So far this year, the state of Arizona has revoked the licenses of 12 police officers.

Some lied during investigations. Another shoplifted, and one stole drugs. In one case, an officer beat a handcuffed suspect, and deliberately broke their glasses. Another was found to have beaten six different suspects while arresting or restraining them.

These officers won’t be allowed to work ever again as law enforcement officers in Arizona. But they might be able to find a job in a state like Massachusetts, which has no state licensing requirements for police officers, or in Wisconsin, which only disqualifies officers with certain criminal convictions or incomplete training.

Laws that determine who has the right to make arrests and use deadly force are a patchwork of regulations nationwide. That means that troubled officers can continue to work in law enforcement, moving from city to town or even to neighboring states, with few formal ways to track or check their behavior.

Today, more states are moving to change those rules, either considering legislation to certify officers, or tightening existing standards for law enforcement officers. Some of the push is due to the dogged efforts of police certification officials, who have worked for years in their states to persuade police unions and politicians of the need for more regulations. Their work has also been bolstered in recent years by the renewed scrutiny of police in the wake of high-profile shootings, said Roger Goldman, a St. Louis University professor and certification expert. “People realize that there is this movement of officers that commit misconduct in one department and go on to do it in others,” he said.

Massachusetts is one of six states — along with New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and Hawaii — that lacks the authority to revoke police officers’ licenses to serve, a process known as decertification. A pair of state representatives, Democrat Russell Holmes and Republican David Vieira, have introduced a measure to establish a committee tasked with drafting a bill that would set statewide standards to determine when an officer can carry a badge — and specify how they might lose it. It would also set continuing training standards for officers, and allocate more funding for the coursework.

In Hawaii, the legislature is considering a minimum training standard for all of its officers, though it still wouldn’t allow decertification. Louisiana lawmakers have taken up a bill that would broaden its decertification policy to include officers convicted of malfeasance in office. Lawmakers in Vermont are pushing legislation that would make it easier to revoke an officer’s certification for criminal conduct. In Michigan, a bill is pending in the statehouse that would add nine misdemeanor convictions to the list of disqualifying officer conduct.

Arizona will further tighten its rules in August to add drug possession and impersonating an officer to its list of disqualifying actions, and further empower state investigators tasked with probing police misconduct. And last week, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill to allow the state certifying agency to review officers’ personnel records and internal affairs files, and deny licenses to problem officers.

Strapped for Cash

Skeptics of certification, such as Ray McGrath, political director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, argue that no police chief or sheriff would hire an officer with a tarnished record anyway. “Massachusetts has some of the most professional police,” he said. McGrath also said that hiring officials scrutinize applicants closely. “[Misconduct] happens across the country, and it’s more severely treated here than in other states,” he said.

Yet some departments still hire such officers, particularly those that are smaller and strapped for cash, said Goldman, the certification expert. Hiring a new recruit in many states means that departments must pay for them to go through the academy, which means spending thousands of dollars and as long as a six-month wait before that officer is walking a beat. The appeal of immediately bringing on a trained officer, even one with a tarnished record, might encourage a department to give a candidate a second look.

“It isn’t enough to leave it up to local chiefs and sheriffs to do the right thing,” Goldman said. “Most will — but others won’t.”

Advocates argue that decertification is essential to building community trust in law enforcement. Black and Latino communities experience a disproportionate amount of police contact but are also less likely to report officer misconduct, either for fear of retaliation or that they won’t be believed, said Rahsaan Hall, head of the racial justice project at the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts. That makes it easier for problem officers to go unnoticed by their departments.

A Patchwork of Laws

Even when agencies do screen out troubled officers, it’s harder to track those who move to other states. That worries people like Mike Becar. For years as the head of Idaho’s state certification office, known as Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, Becar worked to expand the state’s rules for disqualifying conduct beyond felony convictions to include misdemeanor crimes and violations of the code of conduct, such as dishonesty.

In 2005, with the help of federal funding, Becar helped set up a national index of officers who had lost their licenses, so that law enforcement agencies could ensure officers they were hiring hadn’t been decertified in another state. Currently, there are about 20,500 names in the database, many of them officers who have been convicted of felonies.

“Some people are afraid you’re creating a blackball list. It’s definitely not that,” said Becar, who is now the executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training. “It’s something to help in investigations” of potential candidates.

Nationwide, state officials decertified at least 1,847 officers last year, up from about 1,350 in 2011, mostly for criminal conduct, according to a recent analysis of POST practices by Matthew Hickman, a professor at Seattle University. Several POST officials said they use the index and encourage their law enforcement agencies to query it when considering a new candidate.

The database has its limitations. Currently, 39 states of the 44 that decertify officers contribute data. (Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Wisconsin do not.) Despite a recommendation to support the index from the a 2015 presidential task force report on police reform, the Department of Justice no longer provides funding to maintain it. A spokesman for the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs didn’t respond to a query asking why.

“He’s a Good Fella, He Just Made a Mistake”

Even in the 44 states that do de-certify officers, POST officials say it’s difficult to track every violation. Only half of those states require agencies to report disqualifying officer conduct to POST officials, according to Hickman’s analysis.

Georgia decertifies far more officers than any other state in the country — 562 last calendar year. The state now requires officers to tell POST officials when they’ve been arrested. Agencies are required to report the incidents, too.

But that doesn’t always happen, said Ken Vance, executive director of the state’s POST program. Some agencies are still reluctant to report arrests, particularly for crimes like drunk driving, because they don’t want to ruin an officer’s career. “I think historically, people said, ‘He’s a good fella, he just made a mistake,'” Vance said. “Well, that isn’t what the law says.” To find officers that may not have been reported, Vance said he reads 14 newspapers every day, takes reports from private citizens, and uses a new computer system that cross-checks criminal records. Officers face additional sanctions if POST officials discover an arrest they haven’t reported.

Today, Vance estimates that about 70 percent of arrests are reported to his office, up from only 50 percent when he began eight years ago. “Is it foolproof? No ma’am,” he said. “But it’s pretty close. We may not get you today, but somewhere down the road, [an offense] is going to show up.”

The system has one other potential loophole. Officers subject to decertification have the right to appeal, and in some cases may continue to work while the motion is pending. Vance said the process can take up to five years.

A Path in Massachusetts, and an Exception

The path to a POST program in Massachusetts began several years ago. State Rep. Vieira, then a deputy sheriff in a small coastal town, was hired to conduct federally funded training in other states for officers already on the job. He said he found little interest in his home state because such continuing education isn’t mandated as it is elsewhere.

Continuing education can help officers keep up on best practices, such as new thinking on how to better de-escalate incidents or respond to people in mental health crisis, police experts say. In some states, in-service training is mandated by the state POST, and attendance is tracked. Officers may even lose their certification if they don’t fulfill the requirements. Massachusetts officers are supposed to have 40 hours of in-service training yearly, but agencies aren’t required to report on what training their officers have done, if any.

A 2010 state analysis found that training for law enforcement in Massachusetts is underfunded, out-of-date and lacks a mechanism for tracking attendance and course quality. The state provided $187 per officer per year for training for municipal officers, the report said, the lowest payout among 14 states surveyed and well below the median of $586.

Due to budget constraints, the state no longer offers specialized training in several crucial areas, such as arson and accident investigations, collection and preservation of evidence, and internal affairs investigations, the report said.

The current bill would allow a committee to draft legislation that would set a uniform standard of training for nearly all officers with the power to make arrests, and track training throughout their careers. The bill would also require officers to be certified, and revoke the credentials of those who fell short of requirements or committed misconduct.

The Massachusetts bill is still wending its way through the statehouse. One major caveat in the current language underscores just how politically difficult passing such a measure can be. It carves out a major exception: any POST created would exclude 2,300 state troopers, as the state police has its own certification unit. “It was a concession we had to make,” Vieira said, “to get the bill out of committee.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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