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Police Decertification and the Mechanics of Accountability

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Carli Brosseau and Rebecca Woolington did important investigative work for The Oregonian on the failures of Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to hold police officers accountable for their actions. (I don’t think it matters, but in the interest of disclosure, I spoke with Brosseau about my own research while she and Woolington were doing theirs.)

Their piece pivots around the issue of police certification and decertification. The words “certification” and “decertification” might make some people’s eyes glaze over, but this is actually a really important issue. For the last fifty-ish years (dates of implementation vary from state-to-state), police officers have had to obtain state-level certification to work in their chosen profession, much like teachers have to get licensed by the state in which they work. The same agencies that grant certifications have the power to strip those certifications (“decertify”), as well. In theory, this means that state regulators could be an important bulwark against abusive and unfit officers, because if an officer loses his or her certification, they can no longer work anywhere in the state where they’ve been decertified. Being decertified functionally ends a police officer’s career, unless they wish to move to a different state. This is a significantly more severe punishment than is, say, simply being fired by one department but remaining eligible to work in another.

As Brosseau and Woolington note, Oregon has long been held up as a national model for a well-functioning certification system. And, as they reveal, it still doesn’t work well at all:

Because the [Department of Public Safety Standards and Training] wanted thousands of dollars to provide case files underlying these cryptic conclusions, the newsroom focused its records requests on 40 officers who stayed certified after being fired. State law says the department must decertify anyone fired for cause. Yet the department interprets “for cause” so narrowly that 57 percent of fired officers stayed eligible to carry a gun and a badge elsewhere in Oregon.

Except for when officers face criminal charges, Oregon regulators wait for an officer’s employer to make the first move. Agency officials won’t open a case unless an officer has been fired, left work as part of a settlement agreement, or quit in connection with a misconduct investigation. They’ll wait until employment appeals are complete before they decide what to do.

The agency’s staff are gatekeepers. They can conclude many cases on their own.

Other cases are sent to the Police Policy Committee, an advisory committee of sheriffs, police chiefs and union representatives. The committee makes a recommendation to the board, which has the last say.

Department officials focus their power to end careers on punishing failings of “moral fitness,” which they describe as officers intentionally doing bad things.

It’s a perspective that leaves out a wide array of behavior many people would find unacceptable for a police officer.

I’ll leave it to the reader to check out the various behaviors in question, which range from extreme violence to gross incompetence. But suffice to say that this is not a system that is working.

 

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