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Addressing the issue of ‘wandering cops’

In addition to a decertification process, agencies need funding to address the recruitment and retention crisis

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There is little doubt that law enforcement is facing unprecedented recruitment and retention challenges, and that every unfilled position presents a cascade of problems. At the same time, the profession must address the issue of problem employees who leave their organizations under dark clouds only to trade in one uniform for another.

A recent report by Dorothy Moses Schultz (available in full below), an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, addresses the issue of “wandering cops.” According to Moses Schultz, these are cops who leave one police department after alleged misconduct and are then hired by another agency. The report outlines a confluence of issues the policing profession faces today, all of which place more pressure on police agencies to hire wandering cops.

Record numbers of officers are retiring or resigning, contributing to personnel shortages and low morale. Combine this with diminishing financial resources and a smaller pool of recruit candidates, and police departments are being forced to explore creative ways to fill their ranks while keeping recruitment and training expenses to a minimum.

Wading into the recruitment pool

According to some estimates, it can cost a department nearly $100,000 to recruit, hire, equip and train a new officer. This is not a bad investment if the return is a dependable employee for 25 to 30 years. But if that officer fails to make it through field training or leaves the department for other reasons, that is a lost investment that forces the department to start over. At the same time, we know that overworking current staff to fill patrol vacancies creates a whole new set of problems.

It is not too difficult to understand why some agencies are now offering signing, transfer and education bonuses to recruit experienced and dependable officers they can quickly equip, train and get into a patrol car. The problem is that there is a limited number of these candidates, and the deeper an agency wades into that recruitment pool the more likely they are going to encounter someone with a checkered past looking to separate themself from their own set of problems.

Despite our best efforts at vetting those with prior experience, Moses Schultz points out that a certain number of “rogue” cops end up slipping through the cracks thinking that they will have a clean slate by starting over at their next agency. While the numbers may be small, the author says the damage they can do to a department’s reputation can be very large.

Seeking solutions to the “wandering cop”

No agency wants to hire someone who could become the focal point of a lawsuit. However, for the hiring agency, sometimes the only two choices are to hire a wandering cop, or don’t fill the vacancy on your staff. Either way, there can be a substantial risk. The solutions for reducing this risk, however, are not as easy as they seem.

One solution proposed by Moses Schultz is enhancement of the National Decertification Index (NDI) maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) to determine if a recruit candidate’s certification was ever canceled due to misconduct. While states often have differing requirements for reporting disciplinary actions, dismissals and resignations of personnel under investigation, all agencies should be incentivized to report such activities for current personnel to the NDI, and to make inquiries for all candidates seeking employment with their agency, whether they have disclosed previous law enforcement experience or not.

Recommendations similar to those advocated by Moses Schultz in her report are also included in the Executive Order on Accountability in Policing, signed by President Biden on May 25, 2022. This Executive Order creates a national database on police misconduct that will include records of officer misconduct (including convictions, terminations, de-certifications, civil judgments, resignations and retirements while under investigation for serious misconduct, and sustained complaints or records of disciplinary actions for serious misconduct).

While laudable in nature, when we look closer at the “misconduct” that this database will track, the waters become murky. For example, officers convicted of committing crimes or forced into retirement or resignation while under investigation for serious misconduct will have their records added to the database. Thus, any agency seeking to hire such an officer will have access to this information and, theoretically, this will reduce the problem of wandering cops and improve professional accountability.

More problematic, however, are the records of officers who are terminated, de-certified, or have civil judgments against them. Without further qualifying the nature of these personnel actions, their inclusion within the database becomes difficult to evaluate. For example, will an officer who is terminated prior to successfully completing field training have their termination included in the database? We know that the standards of field training can vary wildly among departments, as can the value of the training itself, and an officer that fails the field training program at one department may do very well at a different department. Under the proposed national database, would that officer even get a second chance?

Even more concerning is the inclusion of the records of officers involved in civil judgments. The majority of civil judgments do not come as the result of a trial but from decisions made by insurance companies or risk managers. In such cases, the cost of defending the officer or department in court is weighed against the cost of an out-of-court settlement, with the cheaper alternative usually being the latter. Whether the officer committed the alleged misconduct is often immaterial, and quite possibly never proven. Yet, under the recent Executive Order, these records may also be included in the database.

However, the most significant issue that police agencies face regarding improved accountability, recruitment and retention is ignored by the President’s Executive Order.

As stated in the introduction to the Executive Order, its primary purpose is to “rebuild public trust and strengthen public safety.” Accordingly, the goal of the National Decertification Index is to prevent problem officers from re-entering the profession, which is also the emphasis of the research report by Moses Schultz. But, unlike the Executive Order, her report also recognizes that achieving this goal will leave undermanned and underfunded (or, in some cases, de-funded) police agencies in even worse shape than they are now, with more vacancies to fill and fewer financial resources available to seek out and recruit high-quality candidates.

In her conclusion, Moses Schultz states that to fill this gap, “The federal government should act to subsidize police recruit training, with priority given to those departments with the greatest need. Eliminating – or easing – their financial burdens would allow police departments to hire the best candidates for the job, rather than the cheapest candidates.”

There is no doubt that state, local and tribal agencies share the goal of reducing the problem of “wandering cops,” but resolving this issue comes with a cost and isn’t as easy as the federal order might suggest. In the meantime, there are steps that individual agencies can take to stop the migration of rogue cops:

For the hiring agency: Don’t take shortcuts on vetting candidates with prior experience, even if they are known to your agency or perhaps are coming from a nearby agency. Be sure that your background questionnaire includes questions about prior disciplinary actions, any pending actions and reasons for leaving any prior employment. Include notice to the applicant that failure to provide full disclosure will result in immediate termination. When it is time for the final hiring decision, ask yourself this question: “Would I hire this person if I only had one vacant position to fill?”

For the former agency of a wandering cop: Don’t withhold information on prior problem employees. Many agencies, under the direction of their attorney or human resources department, will only confirm or deny that someone was a prior employee but won’t provide any background details out of fear of litigation. One way to overcome this is to have anyone leaving employment sign a waiver allowing disclosure of their employment history to any future inquiring agency. If they refuse to sign, that should be the red flag that the future hiring agency needs.

Wandering Cops: How States Can Keep Rogue Officers from Slipping Through the Cracks by epraetorian on Scribd

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.