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How To Stop Police Officers From Getting New Police Jobs After Misconduct


Wandering cops - that's the phrase sometimes used to describe problem police officers who are let go by one department only to get another policing job somewhere else. For decades, reformers have been trying to stop that cycle. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the effort has been reenergized by the George Floyd protests.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The most notorious case of this is still the Cleveland officer who shot a 12-year-old boy playing with a pellet gun, Tamir Rice. Here's CNN back in 2014.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At his previous job at the Independence Police Department, Officer Lowman's personnel records show he was in the process of being fired.

KASTE: And there have been other news stories about cops like this, so John Rappaport thought it was time for a closer look at the phenomenon of wandering officers.

JOHN RAPPAPORT: Is this just a collection of anecdotes, or is there really something systemic going on here?

KASTE: Rappaport is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He and a colleague crunched the employment records of 98,000 law enforcement officers in Florida.

RAPPAPORT: And we find, when we compare wandering officers to either rookie officers or other officers who have moved agencies but never been fired - found that they do behave worse and that they're about 50% more likely to incur subsequent termination or moral character violation complaints.

KASTE: So what's the solution? Roger Goldman has a suggestion.

ROGER GOLDMAN: For the last 40 years, really my focuses, both professionally and advocacy, have been in this area of decertifying law enforcement officers.

KASTE: Decertification - basically, stripping a cop of the license to be a cop - it used to be that most states didn't have a decertification process, but that was before Goldman got involved. He was inspired to act in the early 1980s after hearing about the case of a St. Louis-area officer who'd killed a man he said was trying to steal his car. The officer, it turned out, had previously been fired for misconduct by another department.

GOLDMAN: And I said, this can't be. And out of that, I was able, working with the local ACLU, to get a law passed in Missouri that, for the first time, had decertification.

KASTE: The idea spread, and today 45 states have some version of decertification. But the system is not airtight. The University of Virginia's Rachel Harmon studies the legal regulation of policing.

RACHEL HARMON: No state can so easily create a federal decertification database that prevents officers who have a history of misconduct from wandering from one state to another state. That's something where you do need national coordination.

KASTE: There is a privately run interstate database, the National Decertification Index, but participation is voluntary. The man who runs it, Michael Becar, says most police departments never even check it when they hire new officers.

MICHAEL BECAR: One of the issues is that they just don't know about it. You know, we're running this thing on a shoestring budget since the federal government doesn't provide any money.

KASTE: So now there's a growing consensus in Washington that the feds should get involved. The police reform bill recently passed by House Democrats would make police departments show that their officers are duly certified and make reports to a national police misconduct registry.

JIM PASCO: You know, the old saying in law enforcement is nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop.

KASTE: Jim Pasco is executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. He says police understand that there's a crisis of confidence right now and his organization wants to lean forward to find ways to rebuild trust.

PASCO: Bottom line here is we do not oppose decertification where it's warranted. What we would oppose is decertification without due process.

KASTE: The devil is always in the details. For instance, should police chiefs be forced to decertify cops who quit before they're fired? Should officers be decertified if they've been disciplined but acquitted by a court? Rachel Harmon says we have to keep in mind just how much variation there is between the states when it comes to decertification.

HARMON: We cannot solve this problem simply by national legislation. We do need states actively involved in this process.

KASTE: And in fact, Roger Goldman, the man who's been campaigning for this for 40 years, says in the last few weeks, he's had a new wave of calls from around the country from people asking his advice on how to tighten their state's decertification systems.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.