4-66-states

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Certification and Licensing of Police Officers

From “Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual” ACLU Report | December 1, 1997 | section 4; goal 8

Every state now has procedures for certifying or licensing police officers. These require all sworn officers to have some minimum level of training. This was one of the advances of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An important new development is the advent of procedures for decertifying officers. Traditionally, a police officer could be fired from one department but then hired by another. As a result, persons guilty of gross misconduct could continue to work as police officers. Decertification bars a dismissed officer from further police employment in that state (though not necessarily in some other state). Between 1976 and 1983, the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission decertified 132 police officers.

Standardized procedures for state-level certification/decertification are a worthy goal to pursue. Be aware, however, that the state commission must have sufficient power and resources to investigate misconduct complaints, and must vigorously exercise its authority. And even if it has such power, certification/decertification is only one part of the comprehensive approach that’s needed to achieve meaningful police discipline.

Revocation of Officer Certification

From Revocation of Police Officer Certification: A Viable Remedy for Police Misconduct? Saint Louis University Law Journal | Spring, 2001 | By Roger L. Goldman, Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law and Steven Puro, Professor of Political Science, Saint Louis University

The most common state legislative and administrative approach for addressing police misconduct, which is largely unknown to scholars and the public even though it has been adopted by forty-three states, involves revocation of the officer’s state certificate or license n4 that is issued upon successful completion of statemandated training. As opposed to termination of employment by a local department, which does not prevent the officer from being rehired by a different department, revocation of the certificate prevents the officer from continuing to serve in law enforcement in the state. n5 A state agency, typically called a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), n6 has the authority to hold hearings and impose sanctions against [*543] police officers n7 that have engaged in serious misconduct as defined in the statute or regulation. Known as revocation, n8 decertification n9 or cancellation, n10 [*544] this practice has the advantage of insuring that officers cannot continue to practice their profession in the state by suspending or removing state certification. It treats the police profession like any other – if minimum standards of performance are not met, the person loses the privilege of continuing in the profession. n11 Although the focus of this article is on misconduct in the course of the officer’s official duties, grounds for revocation encompass a wide range of activities, including off-duty misconduct. As is true for other professions, a sanction short of revocation is often provided. Florida, for example, provides for revocation, suspension or placement on probationary status for up to two years, retraining and issuance of a reprimand. n12 Except in the case of so-called constitutional officers who hold elective offices, such as sheriffs or constables, revocation applies to everyone – from patrolman to chief. And as discussed below, many state POSTs have jurisdiction over these elected officials. n13

Many of the states with the power to impose sanctions are doing so with increasing frequency. For example, forty officers had their certificates revoked in 1999 compared to one in 1993, two in 1994, and six in 1995. n21 The reasons included sex with arrestees or inmates, theft, third-degree assault and positive drug tests. n22 In Texas, there were twenty-five suspensions and thirty-three revocations in 1997, compared to 267 suspensions and 146 revocations in 1999. n23

Traditional remedies for police misconduct fail to address the problem caused by the practice of leaving the decision to hire and fire officers up to local sheriffs and chiefs. This often leads to situations where unfit officers are able to continue to work for a department that is unable or unwilling to terminate them. Even when they are terminated, these officers often go to work for other departments within the state. Although virtually every other profession is regulated by a state board with the power to remove or suspend [*546] the licenses or certificates of unfit members of the profession (e.g., attorneys, physicians, teachers), there has been a longstanding tradition of local control of police without state involvement.

Without a mechanism at the state or national level to remove the certificate of law enforcement officials who engage in such misconduct, it is likely that there will be more such instances of repeated misconduct. n31 Traditional [*547] remedies do not address the problem. For example, the exclusionary rule prevents prosecutors from using probative evidence seized from a defendant in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, but it does nothing to punish the officer. n32 Likewise, criminal prosecution of officers is rare, and convincing jurors to convict is extremely difficult. n33 Administrative complaints against the police in front of civilian review boards have been equally ineffective because the department for which the officer works rather than an independent body usually conducts the investigation. n34 Finally, civil damage suits against police officers face the problem of juries, who tend to rule in favor of the police; even if the suit is successful, the officer is often judgment-proof. n35

Recognizing the need for a law that removes unfit officers from the profession, particularly those engaging in repeated misconduct, most states have adopted revocation laws; n36 four states have enacted such legislation since 1996. n37 The professional organization of POST Directors, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards & Training (“IADLEST”), in its Model Minimum State Standards, recommends that POSTs be given the authority to both deny and revoke state certification for [*548] law enforcement and corrections officers. n38 The seven states without revocation authority are Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington. n39

Major problems with police practices, including racial profiling, brutality and use of false evidence, call into question whether police self-regulation can address these issues. When police officers overstep their authority, there is often a decline in public confidence that can diminish a department’s legitimacy. n49 In November 2000, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission wrote that “police misconduct remains an “incessant’ problem in the United States, and the failure to wipe out abuse and brutality requires wholesale changes.” n50 Revocation of police officer certificates can lessen the amount of police misconduct and should be adopted in those states without such a program.

Although logic may suggest a relationship between fitness to enter the training academy and fitness to keep the certificate once certified, without the authority to revoke a certificate, states will continue to differentiate between trainees and certified officers. Thus, the New Jersey Police Training Council upheld the dismissal of a trainee from a training academy for testing positive for illegal drugs after a mandatory drug screening, but held that it could not bar the individual for two years from law enforcement employment, concluding it lacked jurisdiction concerning the trainee’s future employment. n176 Noting that the Certificate of Completion awarded to recruit officers is not subject to revocation, the former executive director of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council stated: “The Council has no role in the regulation or enforcement of police discipline other than for student officers while enrolled in an academy.” n177

Opposition to revocation comes from a variety of sources. According to the Human Rights Watch study, “of the states we examined … without decertification powers, [it was] largely due to opposition from police unions.” n190 In some states, the ability of local chiefs to handle the matter without the need for state assistance has been given as a reason for the lack of revocation authority. For example, in the view of the Deputy Director of Training at the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council, the organizational ability of the chiefs in that state would make it “extremely difficult for an officer to go from one department to another without prior knowledge of the officer’s fitness for duty.

A nationwide data bank for police officers authorized by Congress along the model of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), n216 which contains information about errant behavior by medical professionals, would allow states to share data about police officers’ misconduct. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) supported a bill, the Law Enforcement and Correctional Officers Employment Registration Act of 1996, n217 which would have established in the Department of Justice a registry listing all criminal justice agencies for which an officer had worked. Additionally, it would have reported the fact that the officer had his state certification revoked. With the federal government involved in the hiring of 100,000 new law enforcement officers under the COPS program, n218 it clearly has an interest in a system which would help ensure that officers it funds, or with whom these officers work, are not persons who are unfit for the job.

As law enforcement becomes more accepted as a profession regulated by the state, it is only a matter of time before all states will have the power to revoke the certificate or license of unfit officers, and those states that have weak revocation authority will strengthen it. It is ironic that this power already exists for virtually every other profession but not for police officers with the authority to arrest and use deadly force. The reasons why there has not been a public demand for state power to discipline police include: the tradition of local control of police, so that most people are unaware the state already is heavily involved in training and standards; the absence of public awareness of the kinds of incidents of police misconduct discussed in this article; the assumption that attempts to control police misconduct will hamper effective law enforcement; the belief that the problem of police misconduct is one that affects only minority and poor communities; the legislators’ fear that if they support revocation, they will be labeled “pro-criminal”; and the opposition of police unions who fear that the state will abuse the power. n235

No state assumes that the public interest is adequately protected by leaving the ultimate discipline of lawyers and doctors up to law firms and hospitals. Rather, state bar associations cooperate with state supreme courts to disbar unfit lawyers and state medical boards revoke the licenses of unfit doctors. Similarly, given the costs to our society of unfit police officers, the final decision of whether or not a person remains in law enforcement cannot be left up to local departments. There is at least as great a need for state POSTs to serve a function with respect to unfit police officers similar to that of state bar associations and medical boards with respect to unfit lawyers and doctors. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragic incident that results in a public outcry to get police officer revocation legislation enacted. n238 There is no excuse for the few remaining states without revocation authority to delay any longer in getting such laws enacted.

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