Walters: Our Laws Protect Criminal Cops
When the state of California licenses professionals, it is telling Californians that they can depend on licensees to perform their services competently, that miscreants will be disciplined and that in serious cases, their licenses will be lifted.
For instance, the state bar, which oversees attorneys, publishes all of its disciplinary actions, along with the underlying information that justifies its censures.
Police unions have been especially aggressive in erecting barriers to disciplinary oversight, including a “peace officers bill of rights.” Politicians, from the governor down, have been eager to do their bidding because their campaign endorsements are precious political commodities.
Cop unions’ political clout has waned a bit in recent years, most noticeably in failing to block measures that impose stricter standards on use of deadly force and require the release of information on such cases.
However, our laws still make it difficult, or even impossible, to discipline rogue cops, and one of those laws is back in the spotlight because of an extraordinary journalistic effort.
McFarland Has an Especially Large Number of Cops With Criminal Records
Last weekend, dozens of California newspapers published a shocking article, revealing that more than 80 police officers who had committed serious crimes were still on the job.
In response to a series of fatal police shootings, the investigating reporting program at UC Berkeley sought disciplinary records on cops.
The Department of Justice rebuffed inquiries, but the UC journalists submitted a Public Records Act request to the Police Officers Standards and Training Commission (POST) and received data on 12,000 men and women with criminal histories who had applied to become police officers, had worked as officers or are currently employed.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, threatening prosecution, demanded that the records be returned.
The journalists not only refused but collaborated with dozens of California newspapers to delve more deeply into the histories of criminal cops who are still on the job and find out why. One revelation: McFarland, a small San Joaquin Valley town, has an especially large number of cops with criminal records.
Related Story: Why Did This Valley Police Department Hire So Many Cops with Troubling Pasts?
California Is Now One of Just a Handful of States That Cannot Decertify Criminal Cops
The article points out that California was an early leader in creating professional standards for police officers via POST, including the power to take away certifications — in effect, their professional licenses — for misconduct. However, when POST sought to tighten up standards in the 1990s, police unions pushed a 2003 bill to take away that power.
“They were protecting their working members by doing something that would keep POST from ever getting a bigger bite of the apple,” Mike DiMiceli, POST’s former assistant executive director, was quoted as saying in the article.
POST now just adds a notation to officers’ training records when they are convicted of felonies and doesn’t even note other, less serious crimes. Thus, whether a cop is fired for some act is left to his or her employer.
California is now one of just a handful of states that cannot decertify criminal cops. That’s a civic embarrassment. Fixing it is in the hands of today’s Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
CalMatters is a public-interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.