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License to Kill

In 2006, Officer Eddie Boyd of the St. Louis Missouri Police Department had to resign after pistol-whipping a child and falsifying the police report. He was acquitted for the crime, which was terribly frustrating for the child’s family. However, equally frustrating was the fact that Boyd was promptly rehired by the Ferguson Police department, where, a decade later, he was again under investigation for improper use of force.

It is incredibly difficult to fire a cop, but it is even harder to keep one from getting a gun and badge back from another precinct. Because only 45 states require police chiefs to report nationally when and why an officer was fired, and because the current method of distributing that information has relaxed under the new administration, very little stops police chiefs from hiring delinquent cops on the cheap. Requiring that departments both decertify at the state level and regularly report decertifications is the structure for a solution. But unless legislators can get police precincts to better participate in the system, and convince the remaining five states to get on board, the current policy merely shuffles the problem around.

State-licensing is an established practice for service workers all over the country, like plumbers or hair-braiders. During Obama’s second term the Department of Justice (DOJ) expanded a program called the National Decertification Index (NDI), a database that collects and distributes the names of decertified police officers for participating states. However, the system has a huge gap because California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island do not participate because they don’t certify officers at the state-level. Unfortunately, combined, these states represent 25% of all policing power.

The five absent states have become havens for disgraced officers seeking new employment. Officers fired in these states never end up on the index and are therefore harder to screen for. The Denver Post reported that a disproportionate amount of Colorado’s officers received their training out of state. In part, this is due to the regular migration of disgraced police officers from California to Colorado.

State-hopping isn’t the only issue with the current NDI. Only a few states report for misbehavior outside convictions, so officers that behave improperly but don’t get convicted of a crime – not uncommon considering the various protections police departments have against prosecution – get to keep their licenses and work in a different in-state precinct. Another officer, Kevin Schnell, was fired in 2008 for refusing to allow a pregnant woman he pulled over to continue to the hospital. Her child died a few hours later, but charges levied against Officer Schnell were unsuccessful, and he was later rehired two different times by other Missouri departments. Even though it is a state that decertifies at the state level for misconduct, the federal government no longer compels Missouri police chiefs to thoroughly report when an officer is decertified, and they are no longer required to check the index before they hire one.

From the outset, it doesn’t seem like a department would want to hire delinquent individuals, but the disgraced officers provide a sinister benefit: these officers are cheaper. Colloquially known as ‘gypsy cops,’ police chiefs will intentionally not inquire or research an officer because of this financial incentive. One of said gypsy cops, Officer Timothy Loehmann, who had been forced to resign from a suburban department because of an inability to follow orders, was later hired by a Cleveland police force, and in 2014, he fatally shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice. According to Professor Roger Goldman, who has conducted ethnographic research for the past several decades in St. Louis County Missouri, “They are going to hire officers with bad records because they can get them at a discount.” Without oversight, the apple that spoils the bunch just gets tossed into another bucket.

The main barrier to a regularly updated and regularly consulted NDI comes mainly in the form of powerful police unions. California actually used to have ‘cancellation’ ability with officers, which was a lighter version of revoking their licenses, but unions and lobbying groups killed the policy in 2005. However, unions have been willing to compromise in the past. Florida advocates for decertification were able to appease police lobbyists by working slightly more complex language into the decertification process. Rather than ‘to decertify or not to decertify’ as the only options for a misbehaving officer, Florida police chiefs now have the ability to put official complaints on record without firing officers or recommend other methods of reformative retribution.

An officer not fit for service in one department is not fit for service in any – legislators in California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all should put legislation through that certifies officers officially through their Police Standards Committees, and the other 45 states, most of which are not updating the National Index as substantively as they should, ought to re-evaluate their systems. Between 2009 and 2014, approximately 9,000 officers had licenses revoked. That’s a lot of ex-policemen looking for new work. Keeping bad actors in the system means reform in the larger policing system is impossible – reform that has been called for nationwide.

Photo: State Trooper

About the Author

Roxanne Barnes '21 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Roxanne can be reached at