HOUSTON (AP) – Without major changes in nearly every state, a database of national police misconduct such as what the White House and Congress proposed after George Floyd’s death would not be responsible for thousands of problem officers.
Legislators across the country are struggling with police reform following massive demonstrations, growing calls for change and a sharp shift in public opinion on the subject. Democrats want to create a police register that catalogs disciplinary records, layoffs and complaints of misconduct; President Donald Trump’s executive decision calls on the Attorney General to “create a database to coordinate information sharing” between law enforcement agencies.
Any register that emerges would depend on reporting by states. However, states and police forces are following misconduct very differently, and some states are currently not following it up at all. The result is a lack of reliable official records and a patchwork in which agents can remain on duty even after arrest or conviction for a crime.
After Floyd’s death, lawmakers in several states have proposed strengthening their states’ powers to identify and remove problem officials.
“I think the politicians are reluctant to take a step that could be considered anti-police,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
Yost and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, both republicans, have proposed that their state police be empowered to remove law enforcement agents for racial profiling or other wrongdoing that does not result in criminal charges, a power that many states already have to have.
“The potential for reform is better than in my professional life,” said Yost. “That doesn’t mean it’s certain how much we’re going to get, but there is genuine interest and willingness to look at these things seriously and honestly.”
A measure of police misconduct at the state level is decertification. Nearly all states license police officers by imposing standards and training. Most states can certify an officer’s license to prevent a bad one from working in law enforcement.
The Associated Press this month asked all 50 states to provide the number of officers they have certified over the past five full years. Georgia said it had certified 3,239 officers between 2015 and 2019. Minnesota, where Floyd died after a white police officer pressed his knee for several minutes, 21. Maryland declared only one officer.
Minnesota automatically revokes an officer license after the officer has been convicted of a crime. Georgia can adopt an officer license on a variety of grounds, including abuse of violence, committing theft that is not prosecuted or lying in an internal investigation.
The Minneapolis police officer who murdered Philando Castile, a black man, during a traffic stop in 2016 was never declared. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and later left his department under a settlement. He does not work in law enforcement elsewhere in Minnesota, according to the state government.
There is already a federal obligation to collect data on police misconduct. According to criminal justice experts, in the 1994 historic bill – signed by then-Democrat President Bill Clinton – the Department of Justice never met a requirement that it “collect data on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and publish an annual overview.
The then President Barack Obama set up a police task force that recommended the creation of a police misconduct register in 2015, but no action has been taken. And the prospects for a police law are newly uncertain after the Senate Democrats blocked a republican proposal to proceed on Wednesday. The House approved a major police overhaul of the Democrats on Thursday, but the chances of becoming law are virtually nil.
Meanwhile, the most complete information about shootings, assaults and arrests by officers has been compiled by university researchers and news organizations.
In 2015, The Associated Press discovered that nearly 1,000 officers across the country had been certified for sexual assault or other sexual misconduct for six years.
The AP’s investigation uncovered examples of officers charged with single-instance sexual misconduct, who were fired or allowed to resign, were subsequently recommitted to the police and charged with misconduct again.
Five states – California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – don’t have a certification process at all. Nor does the federal government do most of its estimated 130,000 law enforcement officers, including agents from the FBI, U.S. immigration and customs enforcement, and U.S. border patrol.
The Justice Department declined to comment on how it would implement Trump’s execution warrant.
For now, states voluntarily provide the names of agents to a private database called the National Decertification Index, which the police can use when hiring. But Georgia is not naming the index because it is “not a government agency,” said Ryan Powell, deputy director of the state’s standard council. Meanwhile, Minnesota and almost all other states do that.
The index was created and updated with a grant from the Justice Department, but it last received federal money in 2005, said Mike Becar, director of the organization that manages the index. He manages the database with about $ 1,000 a month.
“The federal government could exert much more pressure,” said Becar. “The biggest hurdle is the 50 states with their own individual laws and regulations and legislatures.”
Meanwhile, the California and New Jersey attorneys general, both Democrats, have announced their support for the establishment of a system to decertify police officers in their states. And New York, which implemented police certification in 2016, has repealed a law this month that protects police records from disclosure.
Even if a possible national registry of officers were incomplete, it would still be helpful, said Yost, the Ohio attorney general. Ohio certified 93 officers between 2015 and 2019.
“Some information is better than no information,” Yost said. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start and do what we can.”
Reporters from Associated Press Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.
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