You’d think that police officers, chiefs and citizens alike would all agree we should get rid of officers who have committed serious misconduct: the so-called bad apples. Yet structural flaws enable unfit officers to be recycled into new police departments with few questions asked.
The killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, have drawn attention to the complete breakdown in police-community relationships in communities of color. With trust at such low levels, the question of how to rein in bad police is all the more pressing.
State licenses can play an important role in that effort, especially if they can be revoked from officers whose past behavior has raised red flags. The Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Tim Loehmann, had worked at the Independence Ohio Police Department for six months but resigned in December 2012, a week after an internal memo suggested that he should be “released from employment”. In the memo, which has since been made public, the deputy chief in Independence wrote: “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal”. He added: “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies.” Those records were never checked before Loehmann was hired by the Cleveland Police Department.
Since 1960, when New Mexico became the first state to get the authority to revoke licenses, a total of 44 states have established commissions that have the authority to issue and revoke licenses, similar to the way lawyers and doctors are regulated. But 25% of the nation’s police officers work in six states – California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island – that don’t have such regulatory bodies. And 16 of the 44 states that do have the power to revoke can only do so if the officer has first been convicted of a crime.
Approximately 30,000 law enforcement officers have had their licenses revoked in the United States. However, an officer who has lost his police license may then work in private security, corrections and other criminal justice occupations, depending on each state’s law. Such ex-officers, who are often armed in their new jobs, have sometimes gone on to commit crimes in their new uniforms.
However, a large percentage of police officers with prior misconduct don’t need to leave policing for good. Many know they can seek jobs with other departments that will knowingly hire them despite the risk of a possible damage suit for wrongful hiring. There are economic reasons why this occurs: many departments can’t afford to pay a decent wage so they hire officers who have previously been fired or resigned in lieu of firing because they know they can pay them less.
Another problem is that even if departments would not knowingly hire such an unfit officer, they may end up doing so anyway because they are unaware of the officer’s previous record – either because they didn’t check with a prior department or the prior department wouldn’t disclose the information.
In one case, which I have written about previously, a police officer who was forced to resign from the Chattanooga Police Department in the early 1990s asked the commissioner not to reveal why he left the department, giving assurances that he would move far from Tennessee to Florida. The commissioner complied and the officer was hired by the West Palm Beach Police Department, Florida. There, he was later indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated battery of a suspect. His partner, who was also tried in the same case, had been involved in serious misconduct at a previous department in Florida. They were both acquitted. The mayor of West Palm Beach said that had the previous departments been forthcoming to him about what these officers had done, they would never have been hired.
It is for reasons like these that we need to ensure that dangerous cops can’t just pack up and start police jobs elsewhere, especially when departments are unaware of their past. We need all states to enact laws that take away the ability of unfit officers to continue in law enforcement, treating police professionals the way the states treat other professionals. Such a system is even more needed for police officers, who have the power to arrest, search and use deadly force.
The federal government can encourage this development through the power of the purse. The Department of Justice should give preference for grants to local police departments in states with functioning license-issuing authorities, which report the names of decertified officers to the National Decertification Index (NDI). This database is designed to “flag potentially rogue officers who are jumping from one state to another after having their license or certification revoked in their home state.”
As recommended in the just-released final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the DOJ must ensure that the NDI – which was intended to gather data from the 44 states that currently revoke licenses – is regularly updated by all those states. At the moment, only 37 states currently contribute to it.
States need to move beyond merely revoking licenses of unfit police officers, though. They must enact legislation to disaccredit police departments that do not meet minimum standards, just as failing local school districts can lose accreditation.
The state court acquittals of the Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots led to Congress granting the DOJ the power to sue police departments for a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. Similarly, the tragic events since Ferguson present an opportunity for state legislatures and Congress to enact laws to rebuild the public trust that has been so deeply damaged. And where would it be easier to start than with the group no one can make excuses for: the bad apples?
Correction: The op-ed originally said the police officer moved from North Carolina to Florida. He actually moved from Tennessee.
Published originally on TheGuardian.com