Hundreds of sworn officers in Minnesota were convicted of criminal offenses in the past two decades yet kept their state law enforcement licenses, according to public records examined by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Dozens of them are still on the job with a badge, a gun and the public’s trust that they will uphold the law. The cases reveal a state licensing system that repeatedly fails to hold officers accountable for reckless, sometimes violent, conduct. Minnesota doctors and lawyers can lose their professional licenses for conduct that is unethical or unprofessional, even if they never break a law. Yet law enforcement officers can stay on the job for years even when a judge or jury finds them guilty of criminal behavior.
Scores of the convictions stemmed from off-duty misconduct — including brawls, stalking and domestic altercations — that raise questions about an officer’s temperament for a job that authorizes the use of force. Law enforcement leaders say it’s important for citizens to have confidence that officers are held to the highest ethical standards, on duty or off duty. Minnesota seems to have developed a culture of second chances for those who wear a badge, said Neil Melton, a former police officer who ran Minnesota’s licensing board for 16 years. “Benefit of the doubt. Benefit of the doubt. Benefit of the doubt,” Melton said. “At what point do we say enough is enough?” Minnesota, once a pioneer in professionalizing police work, has fallen far behind other states on police discipline. Among 44 states with comparable licensing, Minnesota ranks 38th in revoking law enforcement licenses, says Seattle University criminologist Matthew Hickman. The national average for revocations is 12 times higher than Minnesota’s.