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This database upholds policing ethics. But not all forces in Kansas use it.

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Jeff Tuttle
/
Kansas Leadership Center Journal
Marvin Reddick of the Goodland Police Department.

A national police decertification database represents one way for agencies to ensure officers with histories of illegal or unethical behavior don’t endanger the public. But still, just 59 of the state’s 371 agencies use it.

The woman was going through a rough time and was worried when she went to the Gardner Police Station in 2020. After recently reporting being beaten by her husband, she was now afraid he may have hidden a GPS tracker on her car.

The police officer, whom she had never met, checked the vehicle out and got her contact number.

Things took a turn after that, according to the report filed with the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training on the decertification of Christopher White. She reported that he had come to her home after that meeting and had begun sending texts – 194 in one week. After he showed up at her house and they had sex, she reported feeling manipulated.

Eventually, she moved away and reported the events to the Johnson County district attorney on the advice of her therapist. There are no records that he was charged with a crime, but the standards commission found enough cause to revoke White’s police officer’s license for the relationship and for trying to cover it up.

The standards commission, otherwise known as CPOST, is full of stories of officers who lost their licenses due to misconduct. Reasons range from lying about hours worked to mistreatment of arrestees to domestic abuse. They are the outliers among policing agencies, but still a big problem because of the damage they do to public trust.

Things are changing, but until lately it was easy for these officers to pack up, move to another state and get a law enforcement job once again.

That happened in Cedar Vale. In 2005, Sean Sullivan, a police officer in Coquille, Oregon, was convicted of two counts of harassment for kissing a 10-year-old girl on the mouth.

The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training canceled his certification. He did not get a jail sentence, but a judge ordered him never to work in law enforcement again.

That didn’t stop Sullivan from trying, though. After applying unsuccessfully for a job in Alaska, Sullivan was hired in Cedar Vale – not as an officer but as police chief. On both applications, Sullivan falsely asserted he had never been convicted of a crime or had his law enforcement license revoked.

He remained in Cedar Vale until May 2006, when his revoked status was discovered by the Kansas standards commission. After another investigation indicated other crimes, his Kansas certification was revoked and he was charged with burglary and criminal conspiracy. (Cedar Vale’s current police chief could not be reached for comment.)

Kansas’ standards commission promoted Sullivan’s case as a reason law enforcement agencies should be using a national database that identifies decertified cops. In 2006 that database, kept by the nonprofit International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), was not well known in the law enforcement community. But it was used by Kansas and Oregon and played a key role in getting Sullivan out of the police chief’s office, according to the agency’s published account.

Since then, its use has been growing in Kansas, with a publicity boost from recent attempts to make its use a hiring requirement. Just since March, 21 departments in jurisdictions that cover more than 400,000 Kansans have started using the database, increasing the total number of agencies in the state using it to 59.

The list of jurisdictions that recently began using it includes the Bonner Springs, Dodge City, Gardner, Lawrence, Topeka and Wellington police departments and sheriff’s offices in Crawford, Finney, Kingman, Seward and Wyandotte counties.

At a time of heated political debate over policing in communities, the widespread use of such measures seems like a relatively noncontroversial way to bolster public trust in law enforcement. Getting bad cops out of law enforcement is popular on the left, right and center.

But although more agencies have begun to use it, many do not. A lack of awareness, concerns that the database might actually incentivize unethical behavior and the challenge of getting agencies to prioritize its use at a time when it can be very tough to find qualified candidates for police officer positions all play a role.

The national decertification database

The database has been around since about 2000, says Mike Becar, the executive director of the standards and training group, an international association focused on supporting good criteria and training for law enforcement. The index was created as a way to beat the “wandering officer” problem that was gaining public attention.

That problem has been difficult to track. A Yale Law Review study published in 2020 of 98,000 full-time officers in Florida over a 30-year period showed that in any given year, 1,100 fired officers, including more than 800 fired for misconduct, were working for new agencies. Authors Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport also found those officers tended to locate at agencies with fewer resources.

Becar calls the index a “pointer system,” meaning that a law enforcement agency that uses it as part of a background check will be told if a job candidate has had a decertification action taken and where to find out more. Only the certifying agencies in each state are allowed to submit information to the index and only cases in which an officer loses a license because of misconduct are included, though what qualifies as misconduct varies from state to state.

It is not open to public viewing.

The standards and training group’s role is advisory. It has no power over the operations of individual states or the commissions that enforce their standards. It can recommend and encourage, but power resides with state-level commissions, as set by their legislatures. Peace officer standards and training commissions issue credentials and set requirements in individual states.

When Sullivan was chief of the Cedar Vale police, the database was still a relative startup. Few had heard of it.

There was no uniformity at the state level in the handling of officers’ credentials, Becar says. Some states, like California, could issue law enforcement licenses but did not have the power to revoke them. Others didn’t have a certification process at all.

Moreover, not all states that could decertify immediately decided to report their information to the index initially.

Even beyond its startup years, the database has grown slowly.

But the resource recently got a boost when California and Massachusetts started using it, Becar says. Massachusetts took it a step further and required all peace officer hiring to be checked against the index. “So that’s huge,” Becar says. Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island are now the only states that don’t contribute to the list.

The public discussion about police reform after the death of George Floyd has likely influenced the growth, he says. Awareness got another boost this year with an executive order from President Joe Biden to create a similar database applying to federal law enforcement officers, who as a rule are not licensed.

Kansas support

The Kansas law enforcement watchdog does not balk at decertifying officers when the facts support it, says Doug Schroeder, executive director of the state standards commission.

Compared with other states, Kansas may appear to be tougher, he says. Schroeder references statistics that show Minnesota, which has more officers than Kansas, took only about 10% of the decertifying actions that Kansas did over a 10-year period.

It isn’t that Kansas is hiring more bad cops, Schroeder explains. The rate is indicative of a rigorous and expanding set of rules for decertifying offenses.

“We’re very proactive, perhaps aggressive, while still providing that due process that officers deserve,” he says. The state commission recently expanded definitions and added a rule that an officer must self-report after getting into legal trouble – for instance, a driving while intoxicated charge in another jurisdiction. The rule covers felonies, misdemeanors of domestic violence or other misdemeanors “that reflect on honesty, trustworthiness, integrity or competence.”

“I jokingly call it ‘go on vacation and come back on probation,’” Schroeder says.

Even some falsehoods – like fudging a time sheet – that might get a wrist slap in the rest of the working world are enough to get an officer decertified in Kansas.

That was the case for Terry Rose, a Butler County sheriff’s deputy who had been called as a witness in a criminal case in 2020. On his way to court, he learned that a plea deal had been reached and he wouldn’t have to testify. Instead of turning back to the office, he headed home, the commission’s investigation found. But he still charged the county for time worked.

Lies – whether on time sheets or during internal investigations – are serious matters when it comes to keeping law enforcement credentials in Kansas, says Darin Beck, executive director of the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center. “It’s absolutely a termination-level thing,” he says, because a record of lying can damage the officer’s credibility as a witness in court cases.

Still, the licensing agency can face criticism for not going far enough, such as this past October when it reprimanded but didn’t decertify an officer it found to have “used excessive force.”

Kansas agencies slow to use the database

Although the national database is free to use, Kansas law enforcement agencies have until recently been slow to access it. In March, only 38 of 371 agencies in the state used the resource as part of their hiring background checks.

But use has increased 55% since then.

That still isn’t enough for Sheila Albers, who thinks every agency should be checking it. Albers is the mother of a teenager killed in a police shooting who has since made law enforcement accountability her focus.

Albers began thinking about the challenge of keeping tabs on officers’ pasts after her son, John, was shot to death in 2018 by a member of the Overland Park police force. Officer Clayton Jenison fired 13 shots into the Albers family van, killing John, who was driving. Jenison resigned shortly thereafter. The incident had begun as a welfare check on the 17-year-old, whose friends had expressed concern about him.

Albers learned of the international standards and training group’s database after a little research and became an advocate for a state law that would require all agencies to check it as part of the background process. A bill was introduced by State Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, last session, but despite support from the state standards commission, it did not get a hearing or a vote.

Albers questioned whether local agencies have pushed hard enough to influence their peers to use the database.

“Why don’t we have all the law enforcement agencies in Johnson County using this?” she asks.

But there’s a reluctance in many law enforcement circles to mandate use of the database. Some influential voices think their missions transcend advocacy, and pushing for a specific solution isn’t appropriate.

Cindy Henson, president of the Johnson County Police Chiefs’ and Sheriff’s Association, says taking a position on a specific issue, like the use of the database, is not a part of the nonprofit’s mission. The association’s purpose is to foster cooperation among the many law enforcement agencies operating in the county and to encourage high professional standards, she says.

Law enforcement agencies contacted for this story were generally supportive of the national index, but were also careful about calling for restrictions on how individual agencies do their hiring. The Kansas Peace Officers Association, for instance, supported Holscher’s bill, says President Joby Harrison. But he emphasized that each agency has its own hiring policies.

As a result, legislators don’t hear law enforcement speaking with a unified voice, which can be an impediment in today’s highly politicized environment to moving legislation that affects policing.

The state commission on standards and training has taken the most visible role in promoting the database, through its publications and support of the bill. Holscher says the version of the bill introduced last session makes it easy for departments to use because it would allow departments to make the final decision on who they hire. It may be reintroduced in the next session, she says.

The training center also has been a big supporter of the index, Beck says. In fact, Beck was a member when IADLEST was new and now represents the Midwest on its board of directors.

“In all of our training, we’re teaching how to do background investigations,” he says. “We’re certainly getting information out there that (the database) exists. And that’s a pretty easy system to access as far as it’s free, it’s easily available.”

There are still holes

But the lists only work when officers are decertified, something that is comparatively rare. For instance, Jenison never faced decertification. He resigned under “normal circumstances,” according to the notation Overland Park officials submitted to the state commission.

Voluntary resignation is one of the circumstances the database doesn’t address. It’s also one of the things that makes Chief David Lathrom of the Medicine Lodge Police Department skeptical about the national database.

“I have seen very bad officers given the choice of resigning or being fired,” he wrote in an email. “If they agree to resign, the chief agrees not to report them to the state CPOST.”

Lathrom says the threat of being listed on the national registry has the potential to empower police chiefs into forcing an officer to do something unethical or illegal.

“It creates a no-win situation for the officer. If they do as the chief says, they have no integrity and may have other problems later. If they say no, their job is gone and they are unable to get another in police work,” he wrote.

In the end, the database is only as good as the information going into it. Kansas officers’ names wind up on it because the standards commission has investigated and found enough evidence of misconduct to pull their licenses.

Why isn’t use more universal?

Becar says awareness of the index has been a problem in the past, especially when fewer states were using it.

“A lot of agencies didn’t even know about the (national decertification index), and we’ve been getting the word out. We’ve done a lot of podcasts and things like that to try to let them know that this is a free service that’s helped,” he says.

In Kansas, Holscher’s bill and promotion from the state commission has also helped.

The Riley County Police Department, for instance, learned about the database through a promotional email, says Nicole Douthit, the department’s human resources officer. The department started using it this summer, she says.

Absent use of the index, individual agency background checks remain the primary way that jurisdictions weed out problem candidates. Agencies contacted for this story all reported doing their own background checks on potential hires.

Those efforts typically include searches for criminal records, court records, school transcripts, social media and Google searches, says Gardner Police Chief James Belcher. Some departments also conduct polygraph tests.

The decertification list is generally described by those who use it as another useful tool to weed out undesirable candidatas.

In fact, the state commission provides some backup by checking new hires against the database as they are reported by police and sheriffs offices. If it finds a hired officer was decertified in another state, he or she cannot be certified in Kansas.

That’s not a perfect system, Schroeder says, because by then the officer already has been working.

Many agency heads agreed that it has been tough to find enough officers to fill their positions. “I think that things that would have been automatic disqualifiers in the hiring process in the past are now being considered much more so on a case-by-case basis as to whether or not they should disqualify,” says Beck, of the training center.

But they disagreed with the suggestion that scarcity of candidates or resources affects their willingness to look in the index for fear of finding a bad cop. Officer misconduct is a huge liability to the community and a blot on officers who need the public to trust them, several said.

“Anytime there’s an officer that conducts himself or herself in not a good light for the public and the citizens of Kansas or the nation, that gives everybody a poor reputation,” says Harrison.

Dawn Layman, chief of police in Lenexa, says officers can be fired or leave for many reasons that don’t disqualify them for future work. But when it comes to misconduct, “trust me, if anybody needs to be on that list, we would report that,” she says. “We check every new hire with IADLEST.”

Public perception matters, Beck says, adding it may be one of the reasons it’s so difficult to find officer candidates.

Beck faults the negative portrayal of law enforcement in the media for some of the problems in hiring. “It’s hard to convince a person to join a team that is being maligned constantly in the press,” he says.

Beck says that, judging by his audiences with civic groups, very few people know there is an agency that oversees police licensing.

“I know a lot of people think that law enforcement is untouchable and isn’t being held accountable. But I can tell you certainly that’s not a true statement,” he says. “Whether it’s law enforcement officers who are being decertified for things they do on duty or law enforcement officers who are going to prison for things that they’re doing on duty, they are being held accountable. And I’m a believer in the system.”

This story was originally published by The Kansas Leadership Center Journal. It's published here as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of 10 community partners, including KMUW.