St. Louis — Timothy Loehmann wanted to be a police officer like his father. He got a job in Independence, Ohio, but it didn’t go well. His supervisors allowed him to quit after he suffered a “dangerous lack of composure” during firearms training. The department concluded he would “not be able to cope or make good decisions” under stress. The deputy chief wrote Loehmann “could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.”
Cleveland Police did not check on Loehmann’s history in Independence before hiring him. And Ohio law required a felony before an officer would lose his badge. So it was Loehmann who responded in the fall of 2014 to the Cleveland park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with what turned out to be a toy gun. Loehmann shot him dead.
The Cleveland department’s failure to check on Loehmann’s background is an example of one of the biggest roadblocks to police accountability – “wandering cops” who lose their jobs in one place only to be rehired and to engage in misconduct in another. The problem of wandering cops continues to haunt police accountability amid piecemeal reforms that fall short of fixing the problem, experts say.
This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
There is a straightforward solution, experts say:
– a national database open to the public with the names of all officers who have engaged in misconduct;
– a requirement that all law enforcement agencies consult that database before hiring.
But that solution has proved elusive. Most states keep the names of disciplined officers secret and the vast majority of departments do not fully investigate the background of an officer they are hiring. Police chiefs, who have found it difficult to rid their departments of problem officers, generally support stronger laws. Police unions oppose them, arguing that past allegations – many of them denied – shouldn’t follow officers through their careers.
Derek Chauvin’s prosecution for the death of George Floyd illustrates that officers who come to public attention in abuse cases often had a string of prior allegations of abuse. Chauvin had 18 prior complaints in the Minneapolis Police Department, two of which led to discipline, according to CNN. Eric Stillman, the Chicago officer who shot and killed a 13-year-old Chicago boy last month – as the boy appeared to raise his hands – had 3 complaints and 4 use of force reports in his 6-year record, according to a watchdog group, the Invisible Institute.
Often an officer with a prior history of complaints is forced out of a department, either fired or allowed to resign like Loehmann. Many find other police jobs in their state or other states and continue to have disciplinary problems, research shows.
A study of wandering officers in the Yale Law Journal last year provided the first systematic look at how prevalent wandering officers are. The answer: Wandering officers are prevalent and often run into disciplinary problems after they are rehired, according to authors Ben Grunwald, an assistant professor at Duke Law School and John Rappaport, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
The professors studied data in Florida, a state that took important steps to impose accountability on police officers after the Liberty City riots of 1980 left 18 dead. Those riots followed the acquittal of officers prosecuted for the death of Arthur McDuffiie, a 33-year-old Black salesman beaten by police after they chased him for traffic violations on his black and orange Kawasaki motorcycle. Four officers who were tried had 47 previous citizen complaints against them.
Partly as a result, Florida enacted a strong police decertification law in 1980 to prevent officers with discipline problems from moving from department to department
Despite the decertification law, many officers fired in one department are rehired and again run afoul of police discipline, the Yale study found. It concluded:
“In any given year over the last three decades, an average of roughly 1,100 full-time law-enforcement officers in Florida walk the streets having been fired in the past, and almost 800 having been fired for misconduct, not counting the many who were fired and reinstated in arbitration. These officers…are subsequently fired and subjected to ‘moral character’ complaints at elevated rates relative to both officers hired as rookies and veterans with clean professional histories.”
NATIONAL DECERTIFICATION INDEX
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, an Idaho-based non-profit, has created a national response to the problem of wandering cops – the National Decertification Index (NDI). Forty-five states provide records of misconduct on 30,172 officers so that states can check the NDI database to see if an officer applying for a job has had previous problems.
But the NDI database is badly flawed, experts say. For one thing, most departments don’t check it before hiring. For another, the names in the database are not public. For a third, some of the biggest states in the country are not in the system.
The NDI database has another flaw. It omits police misconduct that is not serious enough for an officer to be decertified. In many states, only conviction of a felony leads to decertification. So serious misbehavior short of a felony is not included in the database.
The nation takes a much more rigorous approach to its regulation of healthcare practitioners, who also deal in life and death but don’t carry guns, says Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at Saint Louis University Law School and expert on police licensing. The Congressionally mandated National Practitioners Data Base is truly national and far more informative. It contains malpractice judgments, loss of hospital privileges and adverse medical board actions. The police database should be as informative Goldman argued in a 2016 research paper.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, commissioned by President Barack Obama after a series of police killings in 2014, called for the federal government, through the Department of Justice, to follow Goldman’s recommendation to partner with and beef up the NDI database, making it truly national. Police unions, however, opposed this recommendation as unfair to officers who face false allegations. The reform hasn’t happened.
“It’s a real mess for chiefs of police departments,” says David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a police expert. “You go to any chiefs of police conference and every table has the same discussion: ‘I fired this guy and we got him back because it was overturned in union arbitration.’”
Red states such as Florida and Georgia lead the way in decertifying officers with past problems, while there is no decertification in two of the bluest and biggest in the country – California and New Jersey, accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. population. Rhode Island also lacks decertification. Hawaii has a decertification law but doesn’t fund it. And Louisiana has a law but has had only half a dozen decertifications over the past decade.
The bluer states have lagged because their police unions are so strong and oppose expanding the database into a comprehensive repository of police misconduct, Goldman says.
The NDI database publishes a public brochure illustrating the potential of an effective database. It features the case of Sean Sullivan who was caught in 2004 kissing a 10-year-old girl on the mouth in Coquille, Oregon. He was convicted on two counts of harassment and ordered to surrender his Oregon police officer certification and never work as a police officer. Oregon entered his name in the NDI database.
That didn’t stop Sullivan from his sexual attacks as a law enforcement officer. First he tried to get a job in Klawock, Alaska, claiming he never was convicted of a crime. Then he not only got a job as a police officer but as police chief in Cedar Vale, Kan. In Cedar Vale he was investigated for a relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old girl. The girl refused to cooperate with the investigation and Sullivan eventually was convicted of lesser charges of burglary and criminal conspiracy. When the NDI database record from Oregon came to light, Sullivan was fired from police work. He later ended up in prison in Washington State for drug crimes.
In two cases from the Midwest, police departments hired officers they knew had previously been fired by other departments.
Kansas City, Mo. fired Officer Kevin Schnell in 2008 after he refused to obtain emergency medical care for a woman who pleaded for help more than a dozen times during a traffic stop because she was having a miscarriage. “You can go to the hospital when we’re done with you, because you’re obviously not telling us everything here,” Schnell told her, according to court records. He said the woman from Sudan “was just giving me a long line of excuses” because she had “jailitis.”
Instead of sending her to the hospital, he sent her to jail where she passed a blood clot and had a miscarriage the next morning. Kansas City fired Schnell for failing to call emergency medical aid. He went to court in 2010 contesting the firing. He said his comments were not discourteous and that the department was violating his due process rights. The court disagreed. But the two other police departments, including Independence, hired Schnell anyway.
In 2019 the police chief of Strawberry Point, Iowa, asked the city council to hire Jeremiah Owens even though he later acknowledged that he knew Owens had been fired three years earlier by the Laramie, Wyo. police department. Owens had made homicidal threats on his cell phone and failed to report his brother’s involvement in a burglary. The chief and the city council in Strawberry Point went ahead with the hiring. But after Owens was on the job for 11 months, the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy denied him a certificate when it found out about the Laramie firing. Owens has gone to court claiming his due process rights have been violated.
“SECOND CHANCE” PD – McFARLAND, California
Sixty-two years ago, California became the first state in the nation to take away the licenses of police officers who engaged in misconduct. Now, California finds itself as one of the last four states (the others being New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii) without a way to take a badge from an officer. A bill to reinstate decertification failed in the face of police union opposition last year but is back before the legislature.
The consequences of lacking decertification are evident in the short history of the McFarland Police Department, 25 miles north of Bakersfield. The department has become a second chance, sometimes last chance for officers fired or forced out elsewhere. That included two chiefs.
The extent of the problems in McFarland became clear when California passed SB 1421 in 2018 requiring the release of records for officers convicted of habitual sexual abuse and use-of-force violations. A media consortium found that 80 officers in the state had been convicted of crimes. All told, 630 people who had been officers since 2008 had criminal convictions.
McFarland epitomized the problem.
By two years after the department was created in 2009, it had hired 13 officers who had been forced out of previous jobs across the country. Chief David Oberhoffer, a veteran of the San Francisco department, hired most of them, including Ron Navarreta. Navarreta had been fired from the Inglewood department because of a child pornography investigation. Police records showed he admitted to viewing pictures of naked children, but his computer could not be located and no charges were filed.
Chief Oberhoffer said he knew about the investigation when he hired Navarreta, but wasn’t convinced by the evidence and thought Inglewood might have had a grudge.
Other officers hired in McFarland included an officer accused of having sex with a teen police explorer scout, an officer accused of threatening to put women in jail if they didn’t have sex with him, an officer involved in a Los Angeles Police Department burglary ring, an officer who filed a bogus insurance claim for a car dumped in Mexico and an officer convicted of pulling a gun on a stepdaughter’s friends.
After Oberhoffer, the city promoted Gregory Herrington, who had been hired in McFarland despite a DUI conviction in Georgia and having been fired for dishonesty in Banning, a Riverside County department. Herrington, a former Marine, came in vowing to improve the department’s reputation which, he described as in the “toilet bowl.” But he ended up hiring three buddies from Banning also involved in dishonesty.
Leonard Purvis, the police chief who had cleaned out Banning, couldn’t believe eight of his dishonest officers ended up in McFarland, two as chief. He wrote to the toothless state Peace Officers Standards and Training office. It replied: “The decision whether to appoint an individual as a peace officer rests with the agency head. Differences of opinion can exist regarding whether or not an individual should be appointed as a peace officer.”
THE MUNI SHUFFLE – ST. LOUS TO ST. ANN, MISSOURI
In St. Louis, wandering police are so common that there is a name for the phenomenon – the Muni-Shuffle.
St. Ann, a small suburb of about 14,000 near Lambert Field, is the refuge for many officers who have shuffled their way out of bigger departments in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
One was Eddie Boyd III who as a St. Louis officer pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in the face in 2006. He said it was an accident. In 2007 he struck a child in the face with his gun and handcuffs before falsifying a police report, according to Missouri state decertification records. Boyd faced a state decertification order, but a jury ruled in his favor in a lawsuit involving one of the pistol-whipping incidents and he was allowed to keep his badge.
St. Ann hired Boyd. From there Boyd shuffled his way to nearby Ferguson in 2012 and was on the force leading up to the 2014 death of Michael Brown. A Ferguson woman sued Boyd saying he arrested her for asking for his name at the scene of a traffic accident. He also was an officer cited by the Justice Department in its finding of a pattern of unconstitutional policing. He issued nine citations to Fred Watson, an employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Watson had just finished playing basketball and gotten into his car when Boyd arrived to charge him with not wearing a seat belt and a host of other unfounded violations. Watson said Boyd drew his gun and pointed it at his head for using his cell phone. Ferguson police responded it only hired officers after they “undergo extensive investigation.”
Another St. Louis police officer who found refuge in St. Ann was Christopher Tanner who shot a former Black St. Louis officer Milton Green at Green’s home in 2017. A police chase sped into Green’s neighborhood while he was off-duty working on his car in his driveway. A first white officer ordered Green to the ground and forced him to drop his service revolver. No sooner had that officer allowed Green to get up and retrieve his gun but Tanner arrived, told him to drop the pistol and immediately shot him. Green sued the city in 2019.
Tanner soon was joined in St. Ann by Jonathan Foote, who resigned from the St. Louis Police Department after a traffic stop led to a crash where a bystander was killed. And there was Christopher Childers, fired from the St. Louis department after assaulting another officer by firing a stun gun at her in her patrol car. He also had initiated a chase that resulted in the death of a bystander. St. Ann fired Childers last month for overdosing on opiods.
St. Ann’s elected Police Chief Aaron Jimenez also hired officer Ellis Brown after he was forced out of the St. Louis Police Department and his state certification suspended. Brown lied about a 2016 incident where he tailed a car, which accelerated, crashed and started burning. Brown left the scene instead of calling for help and then claimed in a report that he hadn’t been there. Brown also was one of two officers who had shot Kajieme Powell to death in St. Louis after a shoplifting complaint in 2014. He said he acted in self-defense because Powell had a knife. Also, 19 of Brown’s questionable search warrants were thrown out because he used the same language in each.
Then in 2017 St. Ann hired Mark Jakob, one of two St. Louis County police officers fired for lying about a high-speed chase that ended in two deaths. The officers at first claimed not to have been involved in the chase, but an activist group released video showing they were.
Chief Jimenez’s department favors aggressive tactics such as police chases. Despite its small size, St. Ann police conduct as many high-speed chases as the nearby St. Louis and St. Louis Police Departments that are 20 times bigger. Jimenez has said publicly he checks on officers’ backgrounds but hired officers like Tanner and Brown because they hadn’t been fired.
There is one chase a week in St. Ann and one crash every two weeks, sometimes with deadly consequences, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Finally, St. Ann hired ex-Iraqi war veteran Joshua Daniel Becherer, a member of the St. Louis Police Department SWAT team that killed Isaiah Hammet in a controversial no-knock raid in 2017. Becherer resigned from the St. Louis department in 2017 after his arrest for domestic assault for pointing a loaded rifle at a woman’s face and threatening to kill her.
Becherer is a good example of how an officer’s past misdeeds are kept secret from the public.
None of this information about Becherer was released by the Police Officer Licensing and Training (POST) office in Missouri. In fact, the only things that are open to the public about police officers under Missouri’s Sunshine law is the name of officer, license status, and commissioning or law enforcement agency where the officer is employed.
A LIFELONG CRUSADE
Goldman, the veteran law professor, has weighed in on the muni-shuffle in St. Ann, the abuses in McFarland, Cleveland’s mistake in hiring Loehmann – all during a four-decade crusade against wandering cops. The 2014 Black Lives Matter protests after Ferguson and the 2020 George Floyd uprisings have redoubled the attention to the problem of wandering cops and that leads people to Goldman’ doorstep.
Goldman’s crusade began 41 years ago this past March, when two bullets from Joseph Sorbello’s revolver tore through the body of an alleged car thief, Roy Wash, in a parking lot behind a store at 7170 Manchester Boulevard in Maplewood, Mo. The shots killed the alleged thief, but they triggered an epiphany for the still youthful law professor.
Goldman, now 79, read the March 21 1980 account in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Wash’s shooting the day before. The story reported Sorbello as saying that after he surprised the alleged thief in the act of stealing his car, Wash had reached inside his waistband as if for a gun, but no gun was been found. It also reported that the .45 caliber weapon Sorbello had used to kill Wash had been his by dint of his employment as a part-time officer in the police force of Bridgeton Terrace. Finally, it reported that Sorbello had been fired in 1977 from his full-time job at the Maplewood Police Department after allegations that he had lied to a grand jury, tampered with evidence and brutalized prisoners.
Sorbello’s own former colleague had testified he had seen him stick the muzzle of his gun in a prisoner’s mouth and order him to suck on it. While questioning at least two other prisoners, one a 16 -year-old boy, Sorbello had allegedly pointed his gun at their heads and pulled the trigger in a one-way game of Russian Roulette. Later, another Maplewood police officer engaging in the same sport shot another prisoner, Thomas Brown, to death in the headquarters.
How was it, Goldman wondered, that Bridgeton Terrace would have hired someone with that kind of record? How could he have still been certified to be a policeman under Missouri law? Other professions, Goldman knew – from medicine to the law to cosmetology – took steps to decertify bad actors. Yet the police, who have life and death power over all of us, did not?
Checking Missouri law, he found, no, they did not. Once someone had been certified or licensed – the two terms are synonymous — to be a policeman in Missouri, the state had no law that provided for the withdrawal of that license, even if the person had subsequently committed a felony.
Goldman realized he was on to something. He went to Florida, which did decertify police officers for misconduct, and began to dig. He wrote a law journal article concluding, “Decertification offers perhaps the best chance for states to take responsibility for removing unfit police officers from the profession.”
Goldman started his legislative campaign in his home state. Clarence Harmon, a former head of Internal Affairs for the St. Louis Police Department and later chief and mayor, testified that as many as 90 percent of officers who leave the St. Louis department under a cloud simply get new jobs with municipalities in St. Louis County.
The new Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Law passed and took effect in 1988.
Since 1988, Goldman estimates, Missouri has decertified over 1,000 officers. In 2015, according to figures from a survey conducted by a Seattle University researcher, Missouri revoked 53 licenses — more than all but seven other states in the country that year. Despite that record, Goldman says, the Missouri law still needs work, including an expansion to cover not only police officers, but also prison guards, probation and parole personnel, and other corrections officers.
Goldman next went to Illinois and then Indiana, both of which passed laws.
A current police decertification dispute in Texas – the latest Goldman has weighed in on – is a reminder that decertification is no panacea. In Texas officers who engaged in wrongdoing used their police licenses to bargain themselves out of prison time. They surrender their license for reduced charges or probation.
An investigation by KXAN found that in 245 cases from 2015-2018, officers had “used their licenses to leverage a lesser sentence in a plea bargain. More than 30 officers surrendered their licenses in lieu of prosecution or to halt an investigation.”
One was Larry Linley, a DA investigator in Fort Bend County. He originally was charged with four counts of sexual assault for repeated instances of improperly touching an 11-year-old while taking pornographic videos. In 2017 he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of one count of injury to a child in return for surrendering his license. He got no additional jail time.
Legislation designed to give the Texas decertification board more power has been introduced in the legislature but the strongest proposals are bottled up. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, CLEAT, testified against the bills stating, “All of the legislation we see this session is a direct attack on working cops and is punitive in nature.”
Goldman responds to criticisms such as CLEAT’s by saying, “My work is not anti-cop. It’s pro-good cop.” And because of that, both law enforcement organizations and civil liberties groups can find common ground.
If the state can take away the license of a barber for misconduct,” Goldman said in a recent interview, “surely it should be able to do so for a police officer.”
Freivogel and Wagman are former reporters for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who covered the death of Thomas Brown in the Maplewood Police Department headquarters in 1977. Emily Gross, a Pulitzer intern and graduate of Washington University in St. Louis contributed to the Missouri reporting and Meredith Howard, a senior at Baylor to the reporting on Texas.