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. 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.
A second complaint came in 2008 when a woman accused Coyne of sexual assault. Grand Junction officials placed the officer on probation and cut his pay and, even though the district attorney declined to prosecute, Coyne was still on probation when the third accusation was lodged. While the courts found no deliberate indifference by police in employing Coyne, one ruling said 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.
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 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 questionable conduct. Those reporting requirements vary, said Roger Goldman, an expert on police licensing. About 20 states can 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.
The records provided to the AP 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.
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 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. But despite calls since 1996 to expand the index and require participation, contributing remains voluntary, and only 39 states do so. 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. But law enforcement unions call that unnecessary when departments can fire officers and prosecutors can pursue criminal charges.
Ultimately, union officials 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.”
Nomaan Merchant, a Dallas-based reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://twitter.com/nomaanmerchant . Matt Sedensky, an AP national writer who reported from Florida, can be reached at email@example.com or https://twitter.com/sedensky . AP reporter Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.