Toughening Police Decertification an Uphill Battle for States

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Texas police officers. Photo by Elvert Barnes

The effort to hold abusive or errant police officers more accountable for their actions is slowly picking up support across the U.S.

Some 45 states have the authority to revoke police officers’ licenses, but a growing number have recently begun to toughen police decertification laws, which would establish a procedure to more effectively prevent police officers found guilty of misconduct from being hired by other law enforcement agencies.

Their efforts, however, have met with varying degrees of success.

Virginia is pushing to expand decertification laws already on the books, and a former police captain in New Hampshire has been lobbying to replace the state’s current procedure for disbarring officers with a more formal process mandating investigation by county and state authorities.

But an effort in California, one of the five states currently without the power to revoke police licenses—along with Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—has failed.

Senate Bill 731 would have created a process in which officers involved in certain misconduct such as “excessive force, sexual misconduct and dishonesty” would be immediately decertified.

The bill would also have created a division within the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training dedicated to police accountability. The new division would independently review and conduct investigations into serious misconduct and decertify officers “who resign before they are fired.”

steven bradford

California State Sen. Steven Bradford is pushing for a police decertification law. Photo courtesy Wikkipedia.

The bill passed in the state assembly, but the deadline expired before it came up in the Senate.

However, State Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat, says the bill is not dead.

“We’re going to bring the bill back,” Bradford told CNN.

“We’ve already started mobilizing and we have tremendous grassroots support…from the sports and entertainment world.”

Multiple items proposed in the California bill are already in the new Virginia legislation.

The items will address loopholes in Virginia’s present decertification process. For instance, currently if an officer resigns in the middle of Virginia decertification proceedings, the officer is not decertified, and the process ends with no official findings, the Washington Post reports.

Critics say this allows such officers to get jobs with other law enforcement agencies.

The Washington Post also pointed out that present Virginia law also does not list excessive force as grounds for decertifying officers.

The current decertification process in New Hampshire is facing pushback as well, this time by Janet Hadley Champlin, a retired chief of police.

Although New Hampshire reports all decertified officers to the National Decertification Index, according to a 2020 summary report, Champlin points to a list of officers she believes have escaped discipline under the current procedure but need to be vetted and potentially weeded out.

New Hampshire’s “‘Laurie List”

Current and former New Hampshire law enforcement officers found to have lied, used excessive force or otherwise behaved in a way that could harm their credibility as witnesses are currently tracked in the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule (EES), also known as the “Laurie List.”

But the names are redacted, and it’s not clear who the officers are, or whether they still work in the field, according to SentinelSource.

In an August 13 letter to the New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Champlin said the “Laurie List” should be replaced by a tougher decertification process that involves investigation by county and state authorities.

“If the County Attorney concludes that the…misconduct rises to the level that [officers] are no longer credible or otherwise unable to perform their duties, the County Attorney shall direct the respective police chief to notify the [New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council] for the purpose of de-certifying the officer,” the letter proposed.

“The above process provides for a heightened level of transparency, reduces the subjectivity currently in place, and allows for oversight by the Attorney General’s representatives in each respective county.”

Some skeptics say that decertification laws have a limited impact.

Washington State’s decertification process “hardly ever bars police from returning to work” because of how narrow it is, according to a report by Mike Reicher of the Seattle Times.

In fact, of Washington’s about 11,000 officers over the past four years, on a yearly-average, 100 were fired and over 40 are flagged for decertification by supervisors. Yet an average of only 13 officers a year are decertified, Reicher reported.

On top of this, “the state has never decertified an officer for using excessive force,” he added.

Many states only decertify police if their misconduct is criminal.

Minnesota, for  example, only automatically decertifies police who have been convicted of a felony.

Decertification in New York

Earlier this summer, the New York State Office of the Attorney General proposed new procedures for decertification as part of a major overhaul of police procedures.

“All police officers in New York should be certified through a process that allows for ‘decertifying’ officers engaged in misconduct, preventing them from remaining a police officer or being rehired by another department in the State,” the AG’s office recommended.

“The [New York Police Department] should create an open data portal, which would include access to body-camera footage, to ensure that individual officer misconduct is truly transparent.”

bad appleMeanwhile, some police reform groups have stepped up efforts to expand police accountability.

In Massachussetts, a group promoting decertification launched The Bad Apple Police Misconduct Tip Line, which it describes as a way to “safely and if you prefer, anonymously, report police misconduct you witness or experience.”

The line is for use by law enforcement officials as well as the public.

“Bad Apples spoil the bunch,” the promotional blurb says, and invites callers to “help pick’em out.”

At the same time, there is growing support for a national police database  of officers who have been fired or who have resigned because of misconduct charges. But an Associated Press review of all 50 states in June found that it would still fail to account for thousands of problem officers.

“States and police departments track misconduct very differently, and some states currently don’t track it at all,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The result is a lack of reliable official data and a patchwork system in which officers can stay employed even after being arrested or convicted of a crime.”

That has put the burden back on states to develop better methods for collecting and reporting data.

“I think the politicians have been reluctant to take a step that might be perceived as anti-police,” said Ohio  Attorney General Dave Yost.

Nevertheless, Yost argued, “the potential for reform is better than it’s been in my professional lifetime.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s a certainty on how much we’re going to get,” he continued. “But there’s a genuine interest and willingness to look at these things seriously and honestly.”

Laura Bowen is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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