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Volume XIII, Number 27


January 27, 2023

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January 25, 2023

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Policing the Police – Licensing and Decertification for Police Officers [PODCAST]

Corie: Most of us are lucky enough to only have positive interactions with police officers. But across the nation there are some cases of notorious police misconduct and sometimes, because of licensing issues, these officers are allowed to work in other jurisdictions. I’m Corie Dugas, and today I am joined by Professor Emeritus Roger Goldman who has spent the past 35 years studying the process of decertification for police officers and has recently worked to bring forth legislation to close these loopholes. Welcome to the show today.

Roger: Thanks for being here.

Corie: Can you tell us to start this off, why this is such an important issue?

Roger: Well, especially since Ferguson and related occurrences in 2014, it’s come to not just academics concern, but also the national concern that we do have a problem with some small number of police officers committing misconduct in one place, and then continuing to do it in another.

Corie: So you have been studying this much longer than Ferguson has been a big issue in the national spotlight, so what got you interested in this aspect?

Roger: Well I like to say my Ferguson took place, also in St. Louis County in the late 70s, early 80s, where an officer was working for a fairly big department at the time, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, he was involved in an assortment of serious misconduct. Just to give you an example, he would put a gun down a suspect’s throat and say suck on it. He would play Russian Roulette with a suspect, handcuff him, and then, pull the trigger. Issues like that. In fact, a couple of the patrolmen –he was lieutenant – did pull, not in his presence, played Russian Roulette and did kill a suspect who was mentally challenged and had been suspected of trying to cash a $40 cashier’s check. So that’s what got me interested in this issue.

Corie: Ok. So how does –obviously you got interested because of these big things and that’s sort of what sparked this in people’s eyes. How does this process of decertification work and what does it entail?

Roger: So the easiest way to think about it is: How does the state handle other professions that deal with the public; lawyers, doctors, even massage therapists, barbers, all of those trades, professions and occupations are licensed. Which means there is going to be training, minimum selection standards. Think about background checks for lawyers before you can even become a lawyer. And then the ability to revoke the license for misconduct. But that’s not happened until very recently for police officers. We just assume that it’s up to the sheriff or the chief. That’s changed dramatically over the past several years.

Corie: So how is this different than getting fired? If you’re in a different kind of position?

Roger: Ok. That’s a great question because when you think of being fired; again think of other occupations like a lawyer. So you’re working at a law firm and for whatever reason they don’t like your work, so you’re fired. But that doesn’t mean you are disbarred. That would be a separate proceeding done by the state rather than by the hiring agencies. And it’s the same thing for police. You can be fired by the police department, and then separately from that, if the firing was for a reason that was very, very serious, like the kind of things I mentioned in Maplewood-Richmond Heights that could then lead to license revocation.

Corie: And that’s just a more harsh look at what’s going on.

Roger: That’s not necessarily a harsh look. But what it does is instead of being fired from the job, you’re prohibited from serving in that job in that state. Just like if you were disbarred.

Corie: So what kind of process does Missouri have for decertification?

Roger: Well I mentioned that case that got me interested in this 35 years ago. It turned out in that case that officer who had been working for Maplewood-Richmond Heights ended up being hired by another department, knowing what he had done at that prior department, but the chief there said look we can hire this guy he hasn’t lost his license because the state of Missouri didn’t license that. So because of that, several of us including who would later become mayor and police chief, Clarence Harmon, Sheila Lumpy, who was the state rep, and then John Ashcroft, who was the governor, signed a bill that in 1988 enacted a very strong license revocation law in Missouri. Since then about 600 officers have lost their license in Missouri.

Corie: So there are a number of people who have gone through this process and actually have become decertified because of it?

Roger: Absolutely, 600 in this state, 30,000 nationally.

Corie: Wow. I mean that’s a big number, but that shows that there is a process in place and that it is working in some instance. So what are some of the arguments against decertification? There’s certainly detractors.

Roger: Right. The detractors tend to be people –I was just in Massachusetts talking. Massachusetts is one of the six states that don’t have licensing, along with New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, and Hawaii. The arguments there, because there were many radio interviews and newspaper reports, came from chiefs who said; well we don’t need this in Massachusetts because we would never hire an officer who had a bad conduct. Other people, particularly union representatives, again said all we need is good training. We don’t need a process like that. In other words, the state should only be involved in the education side like issuing the bar exam or training police officers, but should not be involved in the regulatory side. I think those arguments are wrong. We wouldn’t say that for a host of other professions, and when you think about it, my view is, that law enforcement folks ought to be the first people who ought to be stringently regulated because who else has the power to arrest, to search and use deadly force.

Corie: Absolutely, they do have a lot of power and so that needs to be moderated somehow.  How can we move towards getting laws passed in the states that don’t currently have them.

Roger: Well it’s pretty difficult to do so, what’s best is if you have an actual case. So back to that Maplewood-Richmond Heights case, this officer was hired in the small town Breckinridge Terrace. He came back to Maplewood where he had once served as a law enforcement officer. He was hired part-time, and he saw someone break into his car. He said I’m a police officer and the fellow started to run and he shot him in the back and killed him. And so he wouldn’t have been able to do that if he would have not been able to have been hired at that second department. So the best way is to have actual cases which show that indeed there is a problem of clearly unfit officers, who is working for one department and then going to another. But in the abstract, it’s very hard because it looks like you’re anti-police. The only way these laws have a chance if its pushed by the professionals themselves, chiefs of police, sheriffs, other people interested in good policing. Groups like, you know, human rights groups and civil liberties groups can be in the background, but they cannot be the leaders. It has to come from the profession itself. It’s a professionalizing mechanism.

Corie: You mentioned a few states, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island, that don’t have these kinds of laws in place. Are professionals pushing the laws forward in any of those states?

Roger: Well there are some people doing it. As I said, I was just in Massachusetts. There was a resolve in Massachusetts to set up a commission to come up with a statute. Hawaii’s state doesn’t have it. They are starting to do it. So again, I think inevitably every state will have this mechanism, but again, unfortunately it takes an actual case to get people to realize ‘whoa how could we allow this to go unmoderated.’

Corie: So how do the states communicate between each other? How can we prevent a decertified police officer in one state from moving to another and working there?

Roger: That’s a great question. There is a private group of the heads of the various state licensing agency called ___. It’s an association of the executive directors of the state agencies. They already have something called the national decertification index. That lists about 20,000 officers on it. But six states, the ones that we mentioned earlier, of course don’t decertify. And they have over 25% of the law enforcement officers in the country. So there is definitely a need to get the other 6 states on board. Ultimately, I think the federal government will have to get involved in this. They are involved in what is called the national practitioner database for medical and healthcare professionals. A similar thing needs to be done for law enforcement.

Corie: Is there any regulation that is happening on a federal level?

Roger: There’s really no regulation in the sense of licensing and decertification for individual federal agents, who can work for a host of different agencies. I think that needs to be done. My guess is that there are decertified state and local officers who are now working for the federal government and so what really needs to happen is a lot of empirical research to find out is there really a problem or is there just a few anecdotal stories.

Corie: So can you tell us what some of these federal offices that would be impacted by the decertification would be?

Roger: Well yes, any of these federal agencies that have power, for example the board of patrol, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, even TSA. So there is just a whole host of other –secret service –agencies that do have law enforcement power. In fact, a good example of a mix of state going to federal –some of you may remember the Charles Graner case. He was the only officer court martial for abuse in ___. He was the one that piled the bodies. He got 10 years court martial. Well prior to that he had been a corrections officer in Pennsylvania, and yet somehow slipping through the cracks, going from –I mean just imagine if he hadn’t gone to ____. Just might how things be different. So that’s why it’s very important to have much better coordination among state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Corie: So in positions like corrections officers, parole officers, are they impacted in any way?

Roger: Great question. Forty-four states do license and decertify law enforcement officers. Only 21 states do the same for corrections officers. In fact, some states that do both, there are more correction officer decertification than there are law enforcement. And I would say the same for parole and probation. Some states cover private security, some states cover tribal police, so let’s face it there is a potential to move, it’s kind of like water seeking its own level, if you know law enforcement or criminal justice and you then get fired or lose your job you then can move to a related area. And that’s why I think the better statuettes are the ones that are the broadest.

Corie: So what are things that need to be happening with the law next to move forward with this?

Roger: For one thing you asked earlier about state laws, I said six states don’t do it, but for several states that do license and decertify, it’s very limited on what they can do it for. That is its only for a criminal conviction of a felony or misdemeanors. And what it really needed is, we wouldn’t really say that for a doctor or a lawyer, you can only lose your license if you get convicted, no it’s the commission of the act that should trigger a decertification. After a fair hearing, we should treat police as they do like every other profession.

Corie: So when in those instances would it be possible to get recertified, if you were found not guilty of the crime?

Roger: Yes, again think how we do this with a whole host of other professions. You can be disbarred as a lawyer, but then after a certain number of years you can seek to come back in depending on what you have done. That’s how it works in other states that do this as well. Decertification is just one option. You can be decertified to can be suspended, you can be put on probation, you can be given a warning, and of course if you do it more than once than it’s likely you are going to have a more serious discipline. So again it’s exactly like every other profession or occupation regulated now by the states.

Corie: For our listeners that maybe don’t know as much about this topic is there anything else that you think they should know to get sort of a well-rounded perspective on?

Roger: Well I think what they should do is, especially in states that have weak or no laws, they have an interest in making sure, not just in their community but in other communities as well, that any one of us could be stopped by one of these rogue officers. Although there is a tendency to think, well we’ve never had a problem with police; let’s face it just like anybody, if there is a bad doctor you could be operated on, it’s similarly here as well.

Corie: Well this topic has been fascinating, it is certainly very relevant in what is happening today in our society, so I appreciate you joining us today, Roger. This has been an enlightening discussion.

© 2016 St. Louis University School of LawNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 144

About this Author

Roger Goldman, Callis Family Professor of Law Emeritus, St. Louis University School of Law
Callis Family Professor of Law Emeritus

Roger L. Goldman, the Callis Family Professor of Law Emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law, is the nation’s foremost expert on police licensing and license revocation laws. For more than two decades he has been helping states write and adopt laws that provide for removing the license or certificate of an officer who engages in serious misconduct, such as sexual assault and brutality.