A police officer who was previously fired for misconduct or quit under threat of being terminated is more likely to be fired again for the same reason if he or she finds another job in policing, according to a groundbreaking research study published in Yale Law Journal.
The so-called “wandering officer,” also known in some policing circles as a “gypsy cop”—although representing a relatively small percentage of overall hires by police departments—poses a risk to communities that needs more attention from federal and state policymakers, the study said.
“Even when well-intentioned—as a second chance for a hardworking cop—hiring a wandering officer is risky business,” wrote the study co-authors, Ben Grunwald of the Duke University School of Law, and John Rappaport of the University of Chicago Law School.
“Wandering officers…are fired and subjected to moral-character complaints more often than other officers [and] notably, they are riskier, by our measures, than even officers hired as rookies.”
The authors called for the creation of a”robust” national database that would record state decisions to decertify police officers for all forms of misconduct, and which in turn would be available to local agencies in other states.
According to the study, the “wandering officer” phenomenon is more common than most analysts and scholars suspect.
The researchers analyzed law enforcement records at more than 500 agencies in Florida over a 30-year period between 1986 and 2016, and found that at any given time about 1,100 “wandering officers” were re-employed across the state—roughly 3 percent of all of the state’s police officers.
Over that time period, they found that on average just under 800 of the rehired officers in any given year had been fired from earlier policing positions for misconduct. (The remainder had either voluntarily terminated their positions or were lured away for better-paying positions.)
The study suggested it was reasonable to conclude that law enforcement agencies in other states either wittingly or unwittingly had a similar hiring pattern. Many of the officers terminated for misconduct and seeking a second job ended up in smaller agencies than the ones where they first worked.
Motives for the questionable hires included budget constraints preventing small police departments from paying salaries that could attract more experienced candidates, or the limitations of a smaller pool of qualified officers that year.
But some were apparently willing to turn a blind eye to past records of misconduct.
“Some agency leaders may even believe they are doing a service to the profession by helping a cast-out comrade find his way,” the study said. “Unlike a new recruit, a wandering officer has earned his spot in policing’s ‘band of brothers’; that he has been fired may signal only that he was unfairly maligned or fell victim to ‘politics.'”
The consequences of such hiring decisions can be tragic, noted the authors.
A well-known example is Tim Loehmann, a Cleveland police officer who in 2014 shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was carrying a replica toy gun. Loehmann had been “allowed . . . to resign” from his previous job in Independence, Ohio, after suffering a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training.
According to his supervisors at the Independence Police Department, Loehmann “would not be able to substantially cope, or make good decisions” in stressful scenarios. Nevertheless, he was hired a year or so later by the Cleveland Police Department, according to the study, without a full review of his personnel file.
Loehmann was subsequently hired by another Ohio police force, but quit a few days later after community residents protested.
In another, less well-known case, an officer who had been fired from four separate law enforcement agencies shot and killed the former mayor of a small town in South Carolina. A jury later awarded the family almost $100 million in a suit alleging negligent hiring by the town.
Wandering officers are far more likely than either rookies or veterans who have never been fired to be sacked from their next job, according to the article.
Th0se officers are also more likely to be the subjects of complaints to state licensing boards for “moral character violations,” including complaints for violent or sexual misconduct and for integrity-related misdeeds.
According to the study, officers who had never been fired and who secured a new position received an average 0.02 complaints for violent or sexual conduct during their next job. In contrast, officers who were fired from their last job received an average of 0.04, roughly twice as many—a difference the authors called statistically significant.
Almost a quarter of the complaints were for violent or sexual conduct (including implied violence), the most common allegations of which are “excess force,” “assault,” “battery – domestic violence,” and “sex offense.”
Another third were integrity-related complaints, the most common allegations of
which are “false statements,” “perjury,” “misuse of public position,” and “fraud.”
The authors found that agencies may know that wandering officers are risky hires but apparently lack any better alternatives.
“Consistent with our finding that wandering officers tend to move to agencies with fewer resources, cash-strapped agencies—and particularly those in undesirable locations—may be unable to offer compensation competitive enough to attract candidates of higher quality than the wandering officers they hire,” the study said.
Moreover, some agencies may actually seek out “cowboy” veteran officers to work the toughest beats under the impression that they may be more effective, even if they have bent the rules—the product of a tough-on-crime ethos which sees police as “warriors” defending the community against criminals.
And it may not be a coincidence that the second jobs for discredited officers are often in communities of color. According to the study, a significant number of fired officers who found new jobs had moved to areas with larger communities of color than those in which they had served before.
The study said the idea of a thorough national decertification database had been promoted for decades by some academics, and most recently by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing created under the Barack Obama administration.
There is an existing database listing officers who have been decertified after being found guilty of criminal offenses, but its coverage is “poor,” the authors said, and congressional efforts to upgrade it have so far “died in committee.” Moreover, its usefulness is undermined by the fact that many states don’t even bother to regularly decertify problem officers.
Five states and the District of Columbia have no decertification process at all, and 20 states require a criminal conviction before an officer can be decertified.
Louisiana has not decertified a single officer in at least a decade, the study said.
Expanding the substantive coverage of a national database to record all misconduct-related terminations—similar to the National Practitioner Databank that tracks medical malpractice—would be a key first step; but it should be accompanied by stricter state guidelines and more transparency governing decertification, the study said.
The authors said that meanwhile, “in light of our new evidence, law-enforcement agencies should be cautious about hiring wandering officers.”
“Not all who wander are lost,” the authors said. “But in policing, many are.”
Read the full article here.