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Keeping bad cops from getting hired

A new state law that went into effect on Monday, January 15, requiring law enforcement agencies to share a record of an officer's misconduct before being hired at another department could help stop bad cops from shuffling around the state, but it lacks enforcement aspects to ensure the law will actually be followed.

The Law Enforcement Officer Separation of Service Record Act imposes new requirements on law enforcement agencies when hiring officers with previous experience. Key requirements include mandatory record keeping by departments regarding the circumstances and reasons for reprimands and why an officer leaves the agency, or separation of service record. The law also prohibits departments from hiring prospective officers without receiving a separation of service record from previous employing agencies. It also provides protection to agencies in sharing confidential employment information with other departments.

The law, which was introduced by a former Eaton County sheriff and current state Senator, received strong support from law enforcement agency directors in the state, is intended to keep officers accused of misconduct from leaving a department and getting hired at a new agency without knowledge of his or her history – thereby becoming “gypsy cops,” taking their bad behavior with them.

Prior to the law's passage, many law enforcement agencies sharing employment records could face lawsuits from former employees who didn't authorize such records to be shared. The new law requires officers to sign a waiver allowing prospective agencies to contact former employing agencies and seek a copy of the officer's separation of service record, and it gives immunity to departments sharing that information.

The new law also eliminates an incentive for law enforcement agencies to allow problematic cops to quit when faced with misconduct that would otherwise end in their termination – a process that may avoid costly arbitration between the department and officers with strong union protections, and one that simply passes bad cops onto new communities, rather than ensuring their removal from the profession.

Under the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) Act, which governs the licensure of law enforcement officers and the requirements for law enforcement agencies that employ them, an agency is already required to maintain employment records. Those records are also required to be shared with the MCOLES Commission. However, there is no requirement to share that information with law enforcement agencies in the state. Instead, it is only required to maintain records in relation to an officer's license, which may be revoked for certain criminal offenses or personal protection orders.

While the new law requires the sharing of records amongst law enforcement agencies in the state, it lacks the teeth to ensure such requirements will be followed. Nor does the law require further disclosure by MCOLES, which in itself isn't a law enforcement agency. Such measures would go a long way in ensuring that law enforcement agencies looking to hire experienced officers are getting the most accurate information available.

Although we believe the majority of law enforcement officers and agencies that hire them have best intentions in mind, the occupation is no more immune to bad actors than any other field. However, police misconduct, unlike that in most other fields, can have a serious and harmful impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Police misconduct can result in the loss of a person's property, liberty, reputation or life. In some cases, an officer who has repeatedly been accused of a violation, such as excessive force, can resign before being disciplined or terminated, and find work with another law enforcement agency while retaining his or her licensure. While the new law is designed to reduce such instances, providing a means to enforce the law will ensure the effectiveness of such measures. And we’re not sure there is a mechanism to accomplish that.

Lastly, we implore local law enforcement agencies to keep accurate and thorough employment records and separation of service records and clear policy rules and regulations, as the new law may result in additional arbitration from officers accused of wrongdoing. Doing so will hopefully help keep down the cost of litigation, as well as ensure the law is targeting truly bad actors, and not punish employees who are simply a bad fit for specific agencies.

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