Police reform advocates are calling on the federal government to create a national database of officers who’ve been stripped of their badges.
WASHINGTON (CN) — On Oct. 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer. Jason Van Dyke had responded to a call to investigate someone allegedly carrying a knife and trying to break into vehicles. He later claimed the Black teen was behaving erratically and that he had PCP in his system, but dashcam footage released a year later revealed that McDonald was walking away when Van Dyke shot him 16 times.
Jason Van Dyke was considered a “problem officer”— or rather, experts say, he should’ve been. During his 17-year career, he had received 25 civilian complaints, more than at least 93% of other officers in the Chicago Police Department. Most of the complainants reported him for an excessive use of force.
“He didn’t just have civilian complaints,” Max Schanzenbach, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law, said in a phone call. “He had some supervisor complaints and two civil judgments. So, he was a known problem.”
But Van Dyke wasn’t decertified by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board until 2018, when he was convicted of second-degree murder.
Other officers involved in high-profile police shootings had previously received complaints on the job. Evan Solano, another Chicago Police Department officer who recently made headlines for shooting and killing 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez, was the subject of 11 use-of-force complaints since 2017. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who was found guilty last week of murdering George Floyd, accumulated 18 complaints over his 19-year career.
Due to a lack of federal oversight, these officers remained on the force until they committed crimes that cost their departments money and civilians their lives.
On April 15, the Council on Criminal Justice released a policy assessment from its Task Force on Policing with suggestions for how the Justice Department could improve policing on a wide scale. Among them was a national registry of decertified officers to exile them from the field.
“The continued employment of officers who are terminated in one agency only to find positions elsewhere undermines disciplinary efforts, puts communities at risk, and erodes public confidence in police,” the group said.
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) has a version of what the Council suggests: its National Decertification Index holds records of decertified officers from participating states across the country. Forty-six states have Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) boards that have the authority to certify and decertify officers, which they report to the NDI.
“It’s a tool for background investigators to use before they hire any officer with previous experience to make sure that the officer has not been decertified somewhere else for misconduct,” IADLEST’s project director, Mike Becar, said on a phone call.
The Index was launched 21 years ago to prevent problematic officers from jumping from agency to agency. Today, about 4,000 people can query the NDI, so Becar receives two to three requests a day.
But the uneven standards for decertification across the country leave ample room for officers riddled with complaints to navigate different agencies, because they were never decertified.
Illinois and Alabama, for example, strip officers of their badges if they’re convicted of a felony, like Van Dyke. But less than half of the state POST agencies don’t require an officer commit a felony to be eligible for decertification. Seventy-eight percent of the agencies can decertify officers for a misdemeanor, while only 46% can decertify officers for cause and 50% for misconduct.
In most states, so long as an officer is never prosecuted for a crime, they can remain on the force.
“Right now, there’s just a patchwork of laws and decertification policies state by state, and even jurisdiction by jurisdiction, which makes it far too easy for an officer who was terminated for cause in one agency to be hired at another, often unbeknownst to the hiring agency,” said Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing .
Decertifying an officer for misconduct is complicated further by how a jurisdiction handles complaints. Minneapolis, for example, has become notorious for protecting problematic officers due to disorganized data and mismanagement, enabling bad cops to rise through the ranks despite being investigated for misconduct.
Schanzenbach believes that a national database of decertified officers alone wouldn’t be enough.
“It’s possible it could have a small positive impact,” the professor said. “But the extent to which it’s going to identify and intervene with officers who are problematic but haven’t yet done something horrendous is unlikely.”
Precincts should root out officers based on how many complaints they’ve received, and what patterns arise in them, he said. Van Dyke, for example, had to be convicted of murder before he lost his badge.
A federal database wouldn’t be enough to curb police violence because so many officers with troubling records don’t receive disciplinary action at that level. La Vigne compared it to the bar: “They have really clear processes for what you would do to get debarred and the process for being debarred.” A few quacks may still infiltrate the legal profession, “but that doesn’t create these pernicious, intractable problems that we see in policing,” she said.
There are early warning signs, like excessive use of force, for officers that will commit violent crimes down the line, Schanzenbach believes. Precincts just have to take them seriously.
“Can you imagine if Macy’s continued to employ a retail associate who had generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability for the store?” he said. “But they’re continuously employed in Chicago and New York City and Baltimore and DC, you name it.”