Is It Time to Create a National Registry of Police Misconduct?

Several hundred protesters block a street outside the police station Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Florissant, Mo.

Several hundred protesters block a street outside the police station Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Florissant, Mo. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Police officers who are fired for misconduct can often find law enforcement jobs in different jurisdictions. Some lawmakers think a national registry could prevent cops with shady records from being hired again.

Many protests over the death of George Floyd have included the chant “say his name,” a refrain of the Black Lives Matter movement. That chant has often been followed by protesters shouting the name of one of the youngest victims of police violence: Tamir Rice.

The details of his death are well known. Rice, 12, was killed in 2014 by Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann outside of a recreation center after dispatchers received a report of “a guy in here with a pistol.” 

Crucial details of that call—that the guy was probably a kid, that the weapon was probably fake—were never relayed to Loehmann, who shot Rice within seconds of getting out of his squad car. Rice, who actually had been playing with a toy gun, died the next morning, touching off a national debate about police killings of black people. Loehmann, who is white, was never charged. 

What’s less known is this: Loehmann, who had been with the Cleveland police for less than a year, arguably shouldn’t have been there to begin with—at least that’s what the department later determined. At his previous job with a police department in Independence, Ohio—18 miles away—supervisors recommended firing Loehmann for insubordination, lying and an “inability to emotionally function.” In a memo to human resources released after the shooting, Independence Deputy Police Chief Jim Polak wrote that Loehmann had displayed a “pattern of a lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions. I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct these deficiencies.” 

Loehmann, who was ultimately permitted to resign from that job, didn’t include those details in a personal history statement during the application process in Cleveland. He was hired in mid-2014 and was still in a six-month probationary period when he killed Rice. He was fired by Cleveland police in 2017 for his failure to disclose, but has appealed in court through the local police union to reverse that termination.

Outside of reviewing Loehmann’s personnel file from Independence, there was no way for Cleveland officers to know about his past. There is no national body that tracks or reports on police misconduct, and law enforcement personnel records, including disciplinary actions, are often shielded from public view. It can be difficult even for police chiefs at hiring departments to get information about an officer’s record beyond the basic details of rank, tenure and salary.

“When we were doing the background investigation on an applicant, we’d see that they used to work at an agency, so we’d contact that agency to find out why you left,” said Michael Scott, a former chief of police in Lauderhill, Florida, and a clinical professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “And more often than we would have liked, those agencies would either refuse to comment at all, or they would simply say, ‘You can come here to look at the personnel file.’ They’re just trying to avoid any potential civil liability.”

That lack of centralized information on police misconduct and terminations, coupled with a patchwork of state laws that often shield records from view, can make it easy for fired officers to find work at other police departments. Because of the lack of accessible data, the extent to which that happens is largely unknown, though a 2019 USA Today investigation found 32 officers who became police chiefs or sheriffs despite instances of serious misconduct—domestic violence, improperly withholding evidence and falsifying records—usually at other departments.

“Those chiefs almost certainly represent only a small glimpse at the larger issue, because the records reporters were able to examine cover a small fraction of U.S. law enforcement agencies,” reporters wrote.

In the wake of widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, and a groundswell of support to change how police departments operate, lawmakers across the country are hoping to make that information more readily available. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday signed a measure overturning a longstanding  section of state law that shields police misconduct files from the public, and officials in New Jersey have proposed a statewide database of use of force by officers. Most notably, Congressional Democrats this week unveiled a sweeping police reform bill that includes the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry that would track firings, disciplinary actions and complaints against officers. 

Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon who last week proposed his own legislation to create a similar database, said a registry is crucial to prevent officers who are fired for misconduct from finding new law enforcement jobs in different jurisdictions.

“We count on the police to protect and serve,” he said in a statement. “We cannot allow officers who abuse their badge through racism and brutality to continue to do so time and time again.”

The idea isn’t new. In 1995, then-Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, introduced legislation to create a “national clearinghouse” of firing data on police that could be used in background checks by hiring departments. The goal, he wrote, was to “assure that only honest ethical officers are permitted to serve.”

The bill contained an acknowledgment from the International Association of Chiefs of Police that officers who “violate the public trust by abusing their authority or breaking the law...should not be able to seek police employment in another state or jurisdiction with the expectation that they will be able to conceal their history of misconduct.” 

“There have been numerous documented cases” of this happening, the bill noted. 

The legislation died in committee. The next year, former Rep. Harry Johnson, also a Democrat from Florida, introduced a House version of the bill. In committee hearings, representatives from police unions slammed the effort as an attempt to create a law enforcement “blacklist.” One union official compared the bill to the “witch hunts of Salem.” 

Johnson’s bill also died in committee.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—a group convened at the end of 2014 after weeks of protests over police killings, including Rice’s death—included in its final report a recommendation for a federally funded database of police officers who have lost their licenses or decertifications for misconduct. Specifically, the report recommended expanding and funding an existing database—the National Decertification Index—which tracks decertifications in 45 states, but doesn’t keep track of details, including the reason an officer lost his state policing certification. 

State boards in most states have the authority to revoke the certification that allows police officers to work in law enforcement if they are found guilty of serious misconduct. But the database that tracks those revocations is currently accessible only by law enforcement agencies, and simply expanding it in its current form likely wouldn’t be enough to satisfy renewed calls for increased transparency, said Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on police decertification.

“Remember how limited it is,” he said. “It’s not going to say if an officer was fired, just that he was decertified—but firing is so much more common. You’d have to have something more like what the doctors have. How you get all that information into the data bank could be complex, I’m not sure how you’d do that, but ideally, you would want it to contain more than just decertification.”

The federal government does collect some information on police misconduct, but it’s largely focused on use of force—and it’s rarely granular enough to hold individual officers accountable. The Department of Justice, for example, collects data on several metrics related to police force, most notably a survey about police contact with the public, conducted every three years. None of those efforts include information about individual officers.

The new Congressional proposals are different, designed to increase transparency specifically to better inform hiring decisions and accountability. But it’s unclear how data collection for those policies would work. The congressional proposal, for example, would require states to submit data “for each local law enforcement agency within the state” to the U.S. Attorney General once every 180 days. 

Many states would need to figure out a system for collecting that data and ensuring that it’s comprehensive. Some states, like Florida, already collect similar information—but it’s far from complete, and there’s no penalty for partial submissions. Patching together multiple state systems, or ditching them entirely in favor of a yet-to-be-created national model, would be logistically difficult, Scott said.

“You have to create a national entity that would collect this data, manage and be responsible for the information. This takes effort and attention to detail,” he said. “You’ve got 50 different states with 50 different systems, you’ve got different definitions and different standards, and all of that has to be taken into consideration.”

Police unions have historically been opposed to the idea of national registries, saying they could be used to blacklist officers who are terminated or leave their jobs for minor infractions. None have so far commented publicly on the newer proposals. The Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment to Route Fifty on the proposed registry “at this time,” but FOP President Patrick Yoes this week told NPR the union possibly could support a database if “due process” is included in the system. 

The International Association of Chiefs of Police also did not return a request for comment. But it’s likely that police chiefs would generally be in favor of the idea, Scott said. They’re the ones tasked with hiring new officers and the people most likely to benefit from having easy access to disciplinary records and misconduct information.

“My guess is that most police chief associations will endorse it because they want to know these things,” he said. “But the police unions could be opposed, and the police unions can be very powerful. The main issue, I think, is that this cuts against a deep philosophy in American policing, and that is the notion that we do not ever want to have a national police. The American way is this heavy, heavy emphasis on local control, or, at most, state-level oversight.”

“We’ll just have to see,” he continued. “Sometimes the politics of the moment override traditional opposition. It’s a sound idea and I think its time has come.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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