California can now permanently ban police officers from the profession if they commit serious misconduct. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) approved a package of reform bills on September 30 that included the measure; 46 other states already have similar laws on the books.
Senate Bill 2 took effect immediately. If decertified, an officer will not simply fired by their employer—they also cannot be hired by a different law enforcement agency, a lifelong ban.
SB-2 also created a new advisory board that will review cases of misconduct including excessive force, sexual abuse and dishonesty. If two-thirds of board members vote in favor, it can recommend suspension or decertification by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the state agency that sets minimum professional standards for police officers. The advisory board will be independent from POST, and comrpise seven civilians and two members of law enforcement.
The board won’t just investigate officers who are currently employed. It will also have the power to review professional records of former officers who resigned or were fired, and to revoke their certification retroactively.
A 2019 review found 80 currently employed California police officers had criminal convictions, ranging from animal cruelty to domestic abuse to manslaughter. In total, it found 630 officers convicted of a crime in the last 10 years.
Officers were usually rehired within three years, often by smaller departments that oversee jurisdictions with more residents of color.
The only remaining US states that don’t decertify officers are Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Yet even in the states that do have such laws, it can still be difficult to get officers decertified. This is because the list of qualifying charges is often short.
There is no national database of decertified officers, nor any national policy for officers who work in different states. Even though a decertified officer is banned from being rehired by other law enforcement agencies, they may find work in a different state, or for a police department that lacks the resources or the inclination to thoroughly vet applicants.
A 2020 study examined 98,000 police officers at 500 agencies in Florida over 30 years. The authors found a disturbing pattern: About 3 percent of all currently employed full-time police officers in the state has been previously fired by another police department. Florida has a decertification process.
The study found that these officers were usually rehired within three years, often by smaller departments that oversee jurisdictions with more residents of color. Compared to rookies and veteran officers, these rehired officers were more likely to be fired from their next job, or to receive a complaint for “moral character violation.”
Meanwhile in Washington State, at least 229 officers left their department because of potentially “mis-qualifying conduct” between 2011 and 2016. But 178 of them were rehired elsewhere—meaning three out of four officers simply moved to another department. Washington also has a decertification process, but only a few dozen officers seem to have been decertified. In May, Governor Kate Brown (D) signed a law overhauling the process—officers can now be decertified for excessive use of force, which previously wasn’t an eligible reason.
In Wisconsin, around 200 currently employed officers were found to have been previously fired from other law enforcement jobs, or had resigned pending potential determination. Around 1,000 total officers were fired or resigned during the period studied, meaning around one in five were rehired. Their charges included lying, sexual harassment and physical assault. Only two Wisconsin officers have been decertified since January 2020.
Photograph via California Highway Patrol