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Editorial: Keep bad cops out of town

Police officers walk in formation in Los Angeles
A California bill would create a procedure that strips police officers of state certification for committing serious misconduct, preventing them from moving to other law enforcement jobs.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Very few of the police reforms proposed following the killing of George Floyd are novel approaches to public safety. To the contrary, most are long-standing, common-sense ideas that continue to languish because police unions and other lobbying groups keep saying “no,” despite attempts to accommodate their concerns.

As a result, it’s still the case that law enforcement officers in California who are fired for violating policies against excessive uses of force or who lie on official reports or commit other serious misconduct can simply move down the freeway to another police or sheriff’s department, get hired, and pick up where they left off.

Surgeons and other physicians can’t do that, and thank goodness. Nor can attorneys. They are licensed by the state, and if they commit serious malpractice, they could lose their state certification. They’d have a tough time practicing in any other state after that because licensing authorities tend to check applicants’ records in other jurisdictions.

In fact, there are hundreds of professions that require licenses or certifications, with agencies that have power to yank the right to do business in the event that standards are violated. We probably don’t need quite so many certification requirements. Maybe we ought to let people shampoo hair or put together a floral bouquet without the fear of being decertified for doing a lousy job. After all, bad florists are unlikely to kill anyone or wipe out their savings.

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Bad police officers, though, can be deadly. If they commit material misconduct and are fired or otherwise seriously disciplined, why shouldn’t their former employers be required to report that to a standard-setting agency that could put in motion an investigation? Why shouldn’t such an agency have power to advise when decertification may be warranted? Why shouldn’t such cases then go before a panel with public members to consider the agency’s recommendation, and then why shouldn’t there be an evidentiary hearing, with a final determination to be made by an administrative law judge?

Californians who are impatient with police misconduct might well object that this process provides too many hoops to jump through before a police officer who was fired for misconduct loses his or her certification. Conversely, police ought to like all those protections.

But police organizations are still objecting to SB 2, a worthy bill that would set up just such a decertification process.

They insist that they’re OK with decertifying bad officers in principle. But they object to step two in the process laid out in the bill: A hearing by a nine-member civilian board, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, to include people with backgrounds in academia, community-based organizations — and people who have been directly affected by police use of force.

No doubt it’s that last point that’s the sticker. Police fear being brought before an angry tribunal of people with anti-cop grudges who are itching for payback.

But the process set forth in the bill is decidedly not that. Advisory board members are not self-appointed. And even in the unlikely event that all the politicians with appointment power have it in for the police, the board portion of the process is the only one that is not dominated by law enforcement professionals. In the end it would be the already-existing California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training that decides whether the matter is referred to a judge for a full hearing.

The board’s participation would merely be a civilian check on a process that would otherwise be completely within the ambit of the law enforcement establishment. In that sense, it’s similar to the 1992 reform to Los Angeles police discipline hearings that mandated civilian participation in the proceedings. Police hated that at first too, but came to love it because the civilians were often more lenient than the police brass.

California is out front on a lot of police reform legislation, but on this one it’s struggling to keep up. Florida, Georgia and Arizona, all of which are police-friendly states, already have decertification processes much like this one.

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SB 2 is actually a very modest bill. It deserves passage. The first step toward better policing is getting bad cops out of the ranks, and Californians have waited long enough for a better way to get that done. So, as a matter of fact, have all the good cops.


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