Police officers who quit their jobs under questionable circumstances or are fired for misconduct are now being tracked by the state in an effort to weed out bad cops. Wochit
MADISON – Police officers who quit their jobs under questionable circumstances or are fired for misconduct are now being tracked by the state in an effort to weed out bad cops.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice earlier this year began requiring law enforcement agencies to report when officers resign amid an internal investigation, quit in lieu of termination or are fired for cause.
At least 59 officers have been reported to the state since January, Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said Friday.
The Justice Department will warn agencies about the officers should they seek employment elsewhere, according to Christopher Domagalski, chairman of the state Law Enforcement Standards Board, which oversees training and certification of police officers in the state.
“What we’re trying to do is eliminate the opportunity for somebody to slip through the cracks,” said Domagalski, who also is chief of the Sheboygan Police Department.
The change is aimed at identifying officers who switch jobs or hop around to different agencies after committing or being accused of wrongdoing.
Precisely how often that happens is not clear — such information was not systematically tracked until now — but recent cases illustrate the problem.
For instance, last year USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin revealed that the Port Edwards police chief had a history of dishonesty and a part-time officer there had a criminal conviction for abusing an inmate. Both the chief and officer previously worked for a police department near Milwaukee.
The village eventually fired the officer.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin last year also exposed how a deputy accused of raping a female co-worker abruptly resigned and got a new job with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The deputy’s former boss said he told a Clark County official about the rape allegation, which was never prosecuted, and advised against the hire. The Clark County sheriff has said he was not made aware of the rape allegation.
The deputy later quit and the official responsible for the background check retired.
Now, the Justice Department will flag reported officers in a database and cross-reference them with the names of potential new hires at police agencies, said Brian O’Keefe, administrator of the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
Police chiefs and sheriffs across Wisconsin had been pushing for the flagging system, which was rolled out in January and February and formally adopted in state policy by the Law Enforcement Standards Board in March.
The mandate applies to local police departments, county sheriff’s offices and jails and units of state government that employ certified officers, including the Capitol Police and Department of Natural Resources. It does not apply to corrections officers in state prisons.
While the Justice Department generally can’t dictate to agencies which certified officers they can employ, the department will warn chiefs and sheriffs that hiring someone flagged in the new system could expose them to liability, O’Keefe said.
One example: A federal jury awarded two men $785,000 in 1994 after one was molested and another was harassed by a police officer in the village of Darien in Walworth County. The officer, Donald White, had offered to void traffic tickets against the men in exchange for sex, according to court records.
Before the lawsuit, the village had fired White for similar misconduct, and he got another police job in a nearby town. Officials there did not know of White’s history because Darien officials “closed and concealed White’s personnel file” and told the police chief not to respond to a Justice Department inquiry, court records show.
Expert: State should do more
Roger Goldman, a national expert on police discipline, said the new tracking system is a “good start” that is similar to what some other states have done. Even so, Goldman said the move does not go far enough because it doesn’t guarantee that problem officers won’t be rehired.
That’s because the state standard for when an officer can be decertified — akin to revoking a professional license — is fairly narrow, he said.
A police officer can be decertified in Wisconsin because of a felony conviction, misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, failing to pay child support, falsifying credentials or not having enough training.
Other states can decertify officers for broader misconduct, including on-the-job infractions that aren’t criminal.
“To protect the public, you’ve got to have some method for screening out people who we place our trust in,” said Goldman, professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law. “We need to prevent repeated misconduct for any profession and especially for police because of their power to search and arrest and use deadly force.”
Part of the problem is that police agencies, especially small and financially strapped departments, have an incentive to hire officers with questionable pasts, Goldman said. Such officers can often start work relatively quickly and may accept lower pay, while new recruits must undergo lengthy and expensive training.
Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel said he has had applicants who would have been flagged under the state’s new system. In those cases, the department’s background investigations uncovered the problems and the applicants weren’t hired.
The police department also administers polygraph tests on applicants, which not every agency does, Hardel said.
“One of our core values is integrity. It’s the foundation of our profession,” Hardel said. “If someone is not being truthful or honest, we can’t have them as an officer.”
Legislation in the works
The Justice Department also is working on draft legislation to facilitate information-sharing about officers among law enforcement agencies, according to O’Keefe. The proposed bill would require that agency hiring officials be given access to the previous personnel files of a job candidate and that they review the files.
The measure would further prohibit confidentiality agreements related to police personnel issues, such as when an officer agrees to quit if the agency keeps misconduct secret.
“That has to stop,” O’Keefe said.
In one recent case, the city of Green Bay agreed to remove records from an officer’s personnel file that showed the officer had been investigated. The officer resigned before he could be fired in the midst of a harassment probe.
A similar deal was struck last year in Marshfield, where an officer was accused of lying and was found by the chief to have violated city policy for making sexually charged comments.
As part of a severance agreement, the officer quit in lieu of termination and the city moved records about the case from the officer’s personnel file into a separate investigative file. The agreement also barred Marshfield’s police chief from telling anyone that the officer had been under investigation or was disciplined.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the state’s largest police union, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which represented the officer in the Marshfield case, said agreements typically include language intended to protect officers when misconduct allegations “were never substantiated or scrutinized in any fact-finding forum such as disciplinary proceedings by a police and fire commission.”
Palmer said agencies usually require officers to sign waivers authorizing release of their previous personnel records. If that doesn’t happen and an officer who resigned under a severance agreement is later hired without disclosing that fact, the officer would likely be fired if it ever came to light, Palmer said.
As for the proposed legislation and the new tracking system, Palmer said the union supports the measures for the most part.
“No one wants a bad cop out of the profession more than a good one,” Palmer said. “Anything we can do to strengthen the candidates and how agencies are hiring law enforcement officers, we view that as a good thing.”