When a police officer leaves their department because of misconduct, there’s no easy public way for people to know if they’re rehired elsewhere in law enforcement.
One of the most notable recent cases was Timothy Loehmann, the former Ohio officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice in 2014.
Loehmann was fired from the Cleveland police force in May 2017 after an internal review panel investigating Tamir’s shooting found he lied or omitted crucial information in his application’s personal history statement.
In 2018, Loehmann applied to, was hired for and then withdrew his application to the police department in Bellaire in eastern Ohio. This would have been his third department in a five-year span.The police union in Cleveland has since filed an appeal to reinstate Loehmann. He was not charged in Rice’s death.
Currently, there is nothing stopping these officers – whom some experts called “wandering” or “second-chance” officers – from going to another state or a smaller department within the same state. Some law enforcement experts tell CNN there needs to be greater federal oversight to track officers who have been involved in misconduct, similar to how the National Practitioner Data Bank tracks misconduct and malpractice payments for health care professionals.
“I think they should have that same thing for law enforcement because law enforcement people can move from state to state and … have the power to use deadly force and arrest,” said Roger L. Goldman, Callis Family Professor of Law Emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law.
There is a Justice Department-funded police misconduct registry called the National Decertification Index (NDI). The NDI lists over 30,000 officer decertifications, which means states have deemed them ineligible to serve as a police officer. It does not track officers accused of misconduct.
But the database is not public, so people in general don’t know it exists if they’re not in the law enforcement community. Even some of those in the community either don’t agree with the current process of the database or simply just do not support it. There’s also nothing mandating every state to contribute to it, so there are still some officers who fall through the cracks.
Here’s a look at the NDI, what it is and its history:
The NDI was created to stop wandering officers
The NDI was created in 2000 by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), an Idaho-based non-profit dedicated to “transforming policing,” according to its Executive Director Michael N. Becar.
“We went to the Department of Justice and asked for funding to create this database to try and stop these problem officers from going from to agency to agency, especially the ones that have been decertified for misconduct,” Becar told CNN, adding that it was the Bureau of Justice Assistance who provided the funds.
The Justice Department funded the NDI again in 2005, when IADLEST decided to redo the database because officers had been tracked by their social security number, Becar said.
“Since that time there was no additional funding,” Becar said.
The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Assistance awarded IADLEST with a $1 million grant in 2020 to redo their database.
The Justice Department declined a CNN request for comment and interview.
The NDI currently contains only an officer’s name, who decertified them and the reason for the decertification, Becar said. Records can be found with the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) commissions in each state, but different state laws may prevent their release.
The revamp of the NDI is looking to include “resignations and terminations for excessive of use of force where it may not be a decertification, but if officers have been accused or convicted of excessive use of force and have had due process, those things will be entered,” Becar said.
It will probably be another year before the new NDI is up and running, Becar said. The current NDI – updated daily – will still continue operations.
Not every state contributes to the NDI
Currently, there are 44 states with 45 agencies – North Carolina has two – reporting decertifications to the NDI, Becar said.
Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii, California and Georgia are the only states that don’t report decertifications. Becar does not know the reason behind these states not reporting.
Representatives with the POST agencies in California and Hawaii told CNN their respective agencies either do not have the power to decertify officers or they simply do not have a decertifying process. The New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Police Training Commission told CNN “police licensure is a work in progress” in the state that the attorney general and the commission is making it a top priority. The director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council told CNN the state decertifies more officers than any other state in the nation and the current NDI does not “function at the level we need it to do.” The Rhode Island POST did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“That’s another problem with the NDI, it’s voluntary; it’s not mandatory,” Becar said. “Any state submitting now could change their mind if they change administrations or they determine it’s not a priority.”
The difference in laws and policies between all of the states and agencies also plays a big part in reporting decertifications. In some states, an officer has to have been convicted of a crime before he or she can be decertified. In most states, though, they decertify based on the act of committing misconduct rather than a conviction, Goldman said.
There’s also the issues regarding the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies themselves. Some of these agencies are extremely small and cash-strapped, so rather than paying to train and hire a new officer, they end up hiring experienced officers who may have a checkered past, Goldman said.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told CNN it shouldn’t matter how departments are doing economically. Ultimately, he said, the department will pay the price for hiring a bad officer.
“There’s no excuse for the kind of sloppy recruiting that goes on in the United States today and our membership is well aware of it and incensed over it,” he said.
In other cases, one department won’t tell another department about a problem officer because of “fear of a defamation lawsuit,” though some states are now mandating departments have to check with a prior agency and that agency must provide information on the officer, Goldman said.
“Just because you’re fired, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a job someplace. Firing somebody just means you lose your job. Decertifying the person, you’ve lost your license and you can’t be a cop in that state,” Goldman said.
The drop in communication between departments and the differing requirements for decertifications ultimately has an adverse effect on the communities being policed. Goldman told CNN the small departments that hire these officers often have large populations of color.
“It has an effect because these officers that are terminated for misconduct never get reported to any kind of a national database, so there’s no way that small agencies that don’t have the funding to do comprehensive background checks, it makes it very difficult for them to find out,” Becar said. “Many times they’re hiring these individuals who are committing similar misconduct.”
A real life example of this was Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir Rice. Loehmann said in a written statement dated November 2015 that he thought Rice was pulling out a real gun from his waistband.
Prior to working with the Cleveland Division of Police, Loehmann resigned from the police department in the suburb of Independence. During an investigation into Tamir’s shooting, an internal review panel found that Independence police would have fired Loehmann had he not resigned.
While at the Independence department, Loehmann was accused of, among other things, failing to secure his firearm and being insubordinate and untruthful to a superior officer. He also was sent home for a day when he had an emotional breakdown during a state qualification course. A supervisor also described him as being “emotionally immature,” according to records from the Independence Police Department, obtained by CNN
Despite this, Loehmann indicated on his application to the Cleveland department that he left Independence for personal reasons. He would go on to work for Cleveland as an officer from 2014 until 2017 when he was fired.
A Cleveland police union official at the time of Loehmann’s firing said disciplinary action against Loehmann and the officer who was with him “was a politically motivated witch hunt.”
Loehmann then applied, was hired and withdrew his application from the police department in Bellaire, a small town on the Ohio River, about 65 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. There was intense reaction from the community, including the police department receiving 200 phone calls in the span of four hours.
The feds are working to combat wandering officers
The spate of high-profile deaths of Black people – like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and most recently Andrew Brown Jr. at the hands of law enforcement in the last year has renewed interest in police reform, especially when it comes to officers hopping from one department to the next.
“One of the largest challenges facing law enforcement in the United States is the utter lack of federal guidance and federal structure on anything in law enforcement,” said Matt Hickman, department chair of criminal justice at Seattle University, who also surveyed officer decertifications in 2015.
“With regard to basic policies and procedures, they’re each kind of doing their own thing and that’s a problem.”
Pasco, the FOP executive director, said there does need to be a federal standard for decertifying officers because some officers are unjustly decertified and/or fired.
He said the current NDI is “a patchwork quilt of processes and subject – in some cases – to the whim of a local police chief or sheriff.” As far as stopping the recycling of bad officers, Pasco said that all begins in the recruiting stage not after an officer is hired.
“To me, it’s part of the whole disease that exists in the recruiting system in this country. One of the symptoms of that disease is the appalling job that some departments do of checking backgrounds of individuals they hire as officers,” Pasco said. “If a police executive doesn’t understand the importance of having a full picture of the integrity and the record of an individual that he or she is hiring to be a police officer, then that chief shouldn’t be a chief.”
Politicians are taking the issue seriously. One bill that’s been proposed and is in the Senate right now is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass of California. Among the many items in the bill, one in particular looks to create a “police misconduct registry.” The bill passed the House in March.
A representative from Bass’ office told CNN her office is aware of the NDI, but could not comment further because of ongoing negotiations on the bill.
“The public deserves to know if officers are corrupt, dangerous, and/or abusive,” a statement from her office read. “Registries are an important part of bringing transparency to policing and ensuring bad police officers aren’t able to go to the next town and be hired after being disciplined or fired for misconduct.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was the lead prosecutor during the Derek Chauvin trial, recently told CNN that the act needs to be signed into law.
“We need a system of registration and documentation. We really should know how many people die in deadly force encounters with the police,” Ellison said.
Hickman says Bass’ misconduct registry would be much broader than the NDI, but he doesn’t know how much more broad it could be because “there’s a lot of misconduct that doesn’t result in decertification.”
Becar, the IADLEST director who oversees the NDI, told CNN that after 21 years of operation, people – and even some agencies – are still unaware of the NDI.
“We’ve approached them (federal government) a number of times,” he said. “Every time there’s an administration change, there’s a change in (the Department of) Justice, so directors come and go and it just has not been a priority with them.”
On top of that, Becar says IADLEST simply doesn’t have the funding to advertise the NDI, but the most recent grant from the Justice Department does include advertising dollars, which could hopefully spread awareness about the NDI going forward.
CNN’s Jason Hanna, Amanda Watts, Jessica Suerth and Dana Ford contributed to this report.