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Editorial: This California bill would stop bad cops from bouncing from city to city

Protesters, outraged over the death of George Floyd, take to the streets in downtown L.A. on May 29, 2020.
Protesters, outraged over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, take to the streets in downtown Los Angeles on May 29, 2020.
(Los Angeles Times)

In California, as in much of the nation, an officer fired for misconduct can often get a job at the police department across town or in the next county. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, few of which have both the capacity and the desire to track down every necessary detail of their applicants’ service records.

Police reformers have long called for a national registry or other database of “bad cops” — officers with histories of dishonesty, racism or excessive force — to ensure that once they are drummed out of one department for good cause they’re not hired by the next oblivious department.

There still is no such registry. One would be required under the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, but after quickly passing the Democratic-controlled House, the bill stalled in the Republican-majority Senate.

Even without an interstate registry, though, California can act now to keep bad officers from moving among in-state police departments.

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Senate Bill 731 would require that law enforcement officers be state-certified, in much the same way that doctors, lawyers and others performing key jobs must be licensed. An officer could lose certification for serious misconduct or — importantly — upon resigning his or her position before the end of an investigation.

The bill would build on the state’s existing Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST, which already regulates training in firearms and other law enforcement functions and awards certificates to officers in participating agencies. But POST does not currently block an officer from moving to another agency within the state, nor does it have the power or capacity to investigate charges of wrongdoing. The bill would grant those powers and would fund them through certification fees imposed on each officer (although they would most probably be reimbursed by their employers).

There is an argument that California and other states impose far too many certification requirements and fees on professions in order to keep the number of competitors low and the pay for those already in the field artificially high. While that argument may have merit in some fields — perhaps for hairstylists, for example — the same critique does not apply to law enforcement officers, who are public employees with the power to take the liberty or life of the people they are sworn to protect and serve. It is not too much to ask that officers who carry deadly weapons be subject to decertification for misconduct.

Critics of the bill also argue that it is directed at a handful of “bad apple” officers and would do little to fix a policing culture in which misconduct by a few is tolerated or even protected.

But California does indeed have bad apple cops who spoil one department after another. In the wake of legislation to require broader public availability of police misconduct records, news outlets discovered last year that the department in the Kern County town of McFarland had knowingly hired many officers who had been fired, sued for misconduct or convicted of crimes in other jurisdictions. The Maywood Police Department has a similar record. And as The Times has reported, L.A. County has hired a number of sheriff’s deputies who’d had troubling histories in other departments. Bad apples may not be the only problem in policing, but they are clearly an important one.

A rival proposal, Assembly Bill 1299, would require departments to notify POST when officers are fired or resign with investigations pending. But that doesn’t guard against the McFarland problem, in which departments know of applicants’ troubled histories but hire them anyway. It also would keep investigations within departments, which don’t always have an incentive to get to the bottom of an officer’s conduct.

SB 731 is the better option. It would leave local agencies independent while still providing a statewide level of scrutiny that is long overdue.


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