AP: Broken system lets problem officers jump from job to job
Law enforcement officers accused of sexual misconduct have jumped from job to job — and at times faced fresh allegations that include raping women — because of a tattered network of laws and lax screening that allowed them to stay on the beat.
A yearlong Associated Press investigation into sex abuse by cops, jail guards, deputies and other state law enforcement officials uncovered a broken system for policing bad officers, with significant flaws in how agencies deal with those suspected of sexual misconduct and glaring warning signs that go unreported or get overlooked.
The AP examination found about 1,000 officers in six years who lost their licenses because of sex crimes that included rape, or sexual misconduct ranging from propositioning citizens to consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse. That number fails to reflect the breadth of the problem, however, because it measures only officers who faced an official process called decertification and not all states have such a system or provided records.
In states that do revoke law enforcement licenses, the process can take years, enabling problem officers to find other jobs. And while there is a national index of decertified officers, contributing to it is voluntary and experts say the database, which is not open to the public, is missing thousands of names.
Some officers are permitted to quietly resign and never even face decertification. Others are able to keep working because departments may not be required to report all misdeeds to a state police standards commission, or they neglect to. Agencies also may not check references when hiring, or fail to share past problems with new employers.
In 2010, a woman sued the Grand Junction Police Department in Colorado, insisting the department erred in hiring officer Glenn Coyne and then failed to supervise him. Coyne was fired, and killed himself days after he was arrested on suspicion of raping the woman in September 2009.
That was sexual assault accusation No. 3, court records show.
While Coyne was still with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, another woman accused him of subjecting her to a strip search and groping her. The complaint came after Grand Junction had completed its background check, and Mesa County officials — who declined comment — did not investigate or inform Coyne’s new employer, according to court records.
Grand Junction police were aware of one other complaint against Coyne, however: The agency had put him on probation and cut his pay after a woman accused him of sexual assault in December 2008. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, but Coyne was still on probation when the third accusation was lodged, working under a new supervisor unaware of why he was punished.
A federal judge considering the civil lawsuit found no deliberate indifference by police in employing Coyne. An appeals court upheld the ruling but noted the “handling of Officer Coyne could and should have been better.”
Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said a subsequent evaluation of hiring procedures found them to be sound, but added that “it’s safe to say that we’re more thorough than ever.” Prospective officers must sign a form allowing the department to review previous personnel records, and it’s considered a red flag if employers don’t respond.
“If an agency won’t speak with us, or seems reticent to supply details, we’ll either dig further into other sources or we just won’t consider the applicant any further,” Camper said.
Problems at multiple police agencies didn’t keep Charles Hoeffer from finding work in Florida, a review of about 1,000 pages of his personnel files found.
Hoeffer has been on paid leave from the Palm Beach Shores Police Department for nearly 20 months while investigators examine a woman’s allegations that he twice raped her in 2014. Palm Beach Shores is Hoeffer’s third police job, despite complaints dating back more than two decades.
He resigned from his first job with the Delray Beach Police amid a probe into whether he struck his wife with a boot, fracturing her nose, and then lied about it to investigators. Before that investigation was complete, Hoeffer was hired in 1991 by the Riviera Beach Police and left blank a job application question asking if he’d ever been the subject of a police probe. Delray Beach ultimately sustained the accusations against Hoeffer, though no criminal charges were filed, and in 1993 the state police standards agency temporarily suspended Hoeffer’s license for assault.
In 1995, Riviera Beach fired Hoeffer after a woman accused him of raping her in a hotel room. An investigation did not lead to any criminal charges, and his termination was reversed by an arbitrator, who found Hoeffer exercised poor judgment by being in the intoxicated woman’s room but had not broken department rules. During arbitration, Riviera Beach said Hoeffer had been the subject of several other internal affairs investigations related to women — accusations ranged from harassment to improper touching during an arrest; the charges were never substantiated.
In 2008, Hoeffer moved on to the Palm Beach Shores department. Allegations followed there, too: A woman claimed he made suggestive comments to her during a domestic dispute call, two female dispatchers accused him of sexual harassment, and another woman who went on a date with Hoeffer said he groped her. Once again, no charges. Then came the current rape investigation.
Hoeffer did not return calls from the AP but, under police questioning, he has denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Gary Lippman, said it’s not uncommon for officers to have complaints in their files but that no compelling evidence has emerged and the women’s claims are rife with contradictions.
Resigning or being fired does not mean an officer loses the ability to work in law enforcement.
Police standards agencies in 44 states can revoke the licenses of problem officers, which should prevent a bad cop from moving on to police work elsewhere. But the process is flawed, said Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied decertification for three decades.
Six states, including New York and California, have no decertification authority over officers who commit misconduct. And in states with decertification powers, virtually every police standards agency relies on local departments to investigate and report misconduct, with reporting requirements varying, Goldman said. About 20 states decertify an officer only after a criminal conviction.
Consider the variations between Pennsylvania and Florida. In Pennsylvania, the state agency responsible for police certification reported just 20 revocations from 2009 through 2014, none for sex-related crimes or misconduct. Florida decertified 2,125 officers in those six years, some 162 for sex-related misconduct.
The difference: Florida is automatically notified when an officer is arrested and requires local departments to report any time an officer is found to have committed misconduct involving “moral character.” Pennsylvania relies on law enforcement agencies to report when an officer has committed a crime or misconduct.
Records provided to the AP from 2009 through 2014 did not include any decertification for former Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to extorting sexual favors from five women and is serving up to eight years in prison. Allegations against Skweres dated to 2008, yet he remained on the job until a victim complained to the FBI; he was arrested in 2012.
Another concern is the length of the decertification process.
In Texas, Michael John Nelson was accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old neighbor while working for the Hardeman County Sheriff’s Office. The local district attorney told the AP he did not prosecute in exchange for Nelson relinquishing his law enforcement license, an agreement reached with the victim and her family. Yet by the time his decertification was final in 2011 — a year after he left the sheriff’s office — Nelson had already worked briefly as a reserve deputy in the town of Bayou Vista.
Nelson said he told his new boss when he learned he was under investigation and turned in his badge once charges were filed.
Paul Odin, who was not familiar with the case but replaced the Bayou Vista police chief who hired Nelson, said background checks often are limited by a department’s size and budget, and that “a lot of agencies, a lot of cities — to avoid lawsuits — won’t disclose anything negative.”
A National Decertification Index contains the names of nearly 20,000 officers who have lost their licenses for problems that include sex abuse. But contributing is voluntary, and only 39 states do so.
Former Georgia State Patrol officer Terry Payne wouldn’t be found in the index, because Georgia doesn’t contribute. That state had more than 2,000 decertifications in six years, and officials said it would be too labor-intensive. Payne was fired in 2008 — and lost his license two years later — for having sex on duty with a subordinate, the daughter of a fellow officer, according to his decertification records. He nevertheless landed three new police jobs in Arkansas; he was certified there before his Georgia license was stripped.
Perry County, Arkansas, Sheriff Scott Montgomery told the AP he did not know Payne had been decertified in Georgia before hiring him in 2011. He said he asked the Georgia State Patrol why Payne was fired but was told only that he wasn’t eligible for re-hire. Montgomery ultimately fired Payne for failing to follow an order to stop associating with a woman separated from her husband after the husband complained.
The AP sent written questions to an address associated with Payne but did not receive any response; several listed phone numbers did not work. Payne’s certification to work in Arkansas law enforcement was scheduled to lapse in late October, at which point he would have to request a reinstatement. The state police standards agency said he is not currently employed as an officer.
There have been calls since 1996 to require states to log the names of decertified officers into a national database. As recently as May, a White House task force on policing — formed after police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere — recommended that the U.S. Justice Department partner with the group that maintains the index to expand it to all states.
Beyond its voluntary nature, the index also contains only limited information: an officer’s name, agency, date of decertification and a basic reason for the license revocation.
Goldman, the decertification expert, said he believes every state should license and ban officers the same as they do other professionals, such as doctors and teachers. He supports the creation of a mandatory databank to track problem officers, similar to the congressionally mandated National Practitioner Data Bank for health care professionals.
But Matthew Hickman, a Seattle University professor and expert on law enforcement decertification, predicts a federal mandate would fail because of the country’s “long history of local control” of law enforcement. The fix, he said, must come at the local and state level.
Even then, union resistance can cause roadblocks.
In California, union pressure led the Legislature to approve a bill in 2003 that diminished the power of that state’s police standards agency, Goldman said. The agency can issue licenses but, unless the license was obtained by fraud, it cannot be revoked. Officials in California said they require local law enforcement agencies to report any time an officer is convicted of a felony crime so they can note that in an officer’s file and potentially disqualify him or her from future police work. But they do not track such convictions or how often they disqualify officers.
Police union officials in California and nationally questioned whether decertification is necessary when departments can fire officers and prosecutors can pursue criminal charges. Ultimately, they said, policing the corps is the job of a chief.
“You’ve got to start at the beginning,” said Jim Pasco, director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Did the process fail when they hired these people? ... And that’s a problem that shoots through a whole myriad of issues, not just sexual crimes.”
Michael Ragusa — now serving a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting three women — admitted during the hiring process with the Miami Police Department that he’d solicited a prostitute, committed theft, sold stolen property and abused a relative. He also was flagged by a psychologist as having impulse control issues.
Still, Ragusa was hired, and he remained on the force for more than three years. Officials later said that the investigator in charge of his background check had himself been disciplined 26 times and was once arrested for falsifying documents.
Changes have resulted from the Ragusa case, according to Miami Police Major Delrish Moss. Psychological assessments of prospective officers have been revised and applications are reviewed more carefully and go through at least five levels of officials, rather than just two.
Barbara Heyer, an attorney who represented one of Ragusa’s victims, said departments big and small have no excuse for not weeding out bad hires, considering today’s technology.
“To say they don’t have the wherewithal ... given the Internet and everything else, that’s just a crock,” she said.
Heyer said that the victim she represented left the country, unable to escape the terror instilled by the rape. Ragusa had threatened the woman’s child, Heyer said, and “she was always fearful he would get out and come look for her.”
“She just couldn’t get past the fact that this was a police officer.”
Nomaan Merchant, a Dallas-based reporter, can be reached at email@example.com or https://twitter.com/nomaanmerchant . Matt Sedensky, an AP national writer who reported from Florida, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://twitter.com/sedensky . AP reporter Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.