State actions could go far in reducing fallout from police misconduct

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The lights of a police car light up a line of traffic at night.

The Washington Post, reporting recently on the billion-dollar costs of repeated police misconduct, identified more than 7,600 officers whose alleged misconduct resulted in more than one payout to resolve claims. The investigation noted that about 1,200 officers had been the subject of at least five payouts and more than 200 were named in 10 or more lawsuits. 

The 7,600 officers represent just over 1 percent of the nation’s not-quite 700,000 police officers in 2020; the 200 are a negligible percentage. Yet, a day later, Virginia Democrats Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Don Beyer renewed calls to pass their 2021 bill, the Cost of Police Misconduct Act, “to require federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to report misconduct allegations and related judgments or settlements, including court fees, to the Justice Department.” The editorial board at the Post also published an editorial calling for an increase in transparency and accountability.

A more effective way to curtail police misbehavior — explained in my recent Manhattan Institute report — is to decertify what’s known as “wandering cops,” those rogue officers who leave one department after disciplinary issues or firing and secure employment elsewhere. Although not all the officers profiled by the Post were wanderers, a close reading of the careers of some points in that direction.

States provide the best protection against wandering cops. Many have expanded the responsibility of their police officer standards and training (POST) bureaus to not only certify new officers but also to decertify veteran officers, as needed, by canceling their license to police. State-level decertification provides a strong barrier to wanderers — about 3 percent of all officers — who generally don’t travel far. Most are hired intra-state by departments smaller and poorer than the ones they left, since state-certified officers need not repeat police academy training, allowing departments to save the officer’s salary and related academy costs.

To stem wandering, all states — some already have — should pass legislation that mandates police agencies to report to their POST any changes in an officer’s employment or disciplinary status within 30 days, and that the POST report the changes to the National Decertification Index (NDI). Reporting to NDI, which is maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), is currently voluntary. It is similar to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) National Discipline Data Bank, which provides information to state bar admission committees. But that should change.

Legislation also should require that a background check of anyone who claims prior police employment include an NDI inquiry to determine whether the applicant’s certification was ever canceled. New laws should differentiate between “listing” an officer’s status or actually “decertifying” the officer, and should specify the criminal or civil offenses or departmental violations that trigger decertification; whether it is automatic or discretionary; whether officers are able to appeal; and how decertified officers may be recertified and under what conditions.

Cops with too many justified complaints against them — such as wandering cops — pose a threat to the public and to the reputation of law enforcement. But reforms aimed solely at police won’t reduce payouts for misdeeds. The Post noted that few cities publicize their payments, identify those involved, or tell departments about settlements. This must also change.

The decision to settle a lawsuit — whether surrounding police misconduct, a slip and fall on an unrepaired pavement, or personal injury or vehicle damage caused by a distracted municipal bus operator — rests with a jurisdiction’s attorney or, in high-profile cases, with elected officials. Settling generally occurs without the knowledge or consent of the department or individual named in the suit.

Departments cannot curtail what they don’t know about. Whether they are interested in protecting employees or, more likely, in discouraging additional lawsuits, by failing to inform hiring agencies of repeat offenders, a jurisdiction’s litigators are preventing those agencies from tracking these officers to facilitate training or progressive discipline.

Along with ongoing efforts aimed specifically at police, states should require officials responsible for settling lawsuits against a jurisdiction (state, city, village, etc.) to inform the department of the lawsuit’s outcome. That way, not only police but all agencies can take steps to correct the problem that caused the lawsuit, whether it is a cracked pavement, a distracted driver, or a rogue, wandering cop.

Dorothy Moses Schulz, Ph.D., is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of “Wandering Cops: How States Can Keep Rogue Officers from Slipping Through the Cracks.” She is an emerita professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain. She has served as a safety and security consultant to transit agencies across the country.

Tags Don Beyer Lawsuits police decertification police misconduct Tim Kaine wandering cops

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