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Nearly all states require police officers to be certified, but not every state has a process for revoking that license, even in the face of egregious misconduct.
A handful of states are hoping to make it easier to prevent cops with bad records from moving to other departments by improving—or establishing—a process to strip them of their licenses to serve in law enforcement.
Forty-six states currently require police officers to be certified or licensed, similar to what’s required of doctors, lawyers, cosmetologists and teachers. Those systems typically establish minimum training standards, along with definitions of misconduct that can cause someone to lose their license. But the specifics vary widely from state to state, and four states—California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island—currently have no process in place to strip police of their license, even in the case of egregious misconduct.
“It’s a very simple concept, embarrassingly simple, just like every other licensed profession—but every state does not have the ability to revoke a license from a police officer or to decertify them,” said Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at St. Louis University Law School and an expert in police licensing and decertification. “And in the states that do have that process, there’s great variation among the grounds for decertification. In about two-thirds of states, being charged with a crime is enough, but in the remaining third, you have to be convicted.”
Even in states where decertification is possible, it's not always done often. From 2015 to 2019, Georgia decertified 3,239 officers, according to data compiled by the Associated Press. In that same time period, Minnesota—where George Floyd’s death in police custody renewed a national debate about police reform—decertified 21 officers, and Maryland decertified just one.
Those discrepancies are at least partly due to differing state thresholds to decertify officers. In Minnesota, licenses are revoked automatically only after law enforcement officers are convicted of a felony. In Maryland, officers can lose their certification by "failing to meet" state training standards or, more specifically, knowingly failing to report suspected child abuse. By contrast, in Georgia, an officer can lose his license for multiple reasons, including lying in an internal investigation or misuse of force.
To revoke a police officer’s certification in Michigan, he or she must be convicted of a crime (either a felony or one of a handful of misdemeanors). That means most infractions, including cases of police misconduct, are overseen and adjudicated by local administrators like police chiefs and sheriffs rather than the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, Dana Nessel, the state’s attorney general, said in June.
“In many respects, MCOLES lacks sufficient authority to oversee law enforcement professionals and to revoke the licenses of police officers who demonstrate poor moral character or violate the public trust,” she said in a statement.
Nessel hopes to beef up that oversight by expanding the criteria for decertification, giving the commission broad authority to suspend or revoke a license if an officer engages “in conduct that adversely affects their ability to perform their duties, or conduct that is detrimental to their police department.”
“We must do more than just condemn bigotry and acts of excessive force committed by law enforcement officers,” she said. “We must act.”
In California, lawmakers are considering legislation that would establish a process for the state to decertify law enforcement officers. The bill, first introduced last year and amended this month, would authorize the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to revoke a certificate for numerous reasons, including use of excessive force, sexual assault and “any act or omission indicative of bad moral characters.”
State Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, said in a statement that the legislation was necessary to ensure that California’s justice system is “fundamentally built with equity and accountability in mind.”
“It is unacceptable that a cycle of answered injustices exists, where officers fired for misconduct are rehired by another department, and very few are ever held accountable,” he said.
Similar legislation has been proposed in Massachusetts, and New Jersey's Police Training Commission voted last month to create a statewide licensing system that will include a decertification process. The commission expects to develop “detailed plans” in the coming months, but agreed that “the suspension/revocation process would make it more difficult for officers with extensive disciplinary problems from moving from police department to police department without accountability,” according to a release from the state’s attorney general.
Police unions, which have historically advocated against decertification processes, have in recent months expressed support for similar proposals. California’s three largest police unions purchased full-page newspaper ads in June to advocate for police reforms, including a proposal to create a national database of police officers who lose their licenses.
Police chiefs, including some in states with active proposals, have also been vocal in their support. The California Police Chiefs Association in June called for “the decertification of officers by (an) independent and impartial authority outside of the deploying agency,” and 84% of local police chiefs in Massachusetts said they supported a statewide licensing system for police, according to data from the state auditor.
“If you have to have a license to cut hair, why shouldn’t you have to have a license to be a police officer?” Jeff Farnsworth, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, told Boston 25 News. “It makes sense. We support it.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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