We recommend that all states have in place a system for the certification of law enforcement officers that sets appropriate standards of conduct and competency. All but four states have such systems today. Certification can—as it does with other professions—ensure that the corps of professional law enforcement officers meet the standards and abide by the policies established for them.
We also recommend that states have in place a system for suspending or revoking an officer’s certification upon the recommendation of his or her department’s chief after an investigation by the department showing that the officer has breached those standards and engaged in serious misconduct. That authority fosters accountability and provides a mechanism for the removal of officers from service if they fail to meet the prescribed professional standards.
We recommend that systems for the retention and sharing of decertification data, particularly across state lines, be improved. Officers who are terminated by one department for misconduct that bears on their fitness for duty should not be hired by another department.
Certification Requirements Help Establish and Maintain a Professional Police Force
Serving as a law enforcement officer is a profession, just as serving as a lawyer, a doctor, a hair stylist, or an electrician is. Those professions, and many more, are the subject of state certification standards for competency and ethical behavior. In many states, there are agencies that certify officers. They are commonly called a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board or commission, and they set qualification standards for who may become an officer and ensure that officers remain up-to-date on both developments in policing and the applicable standards of conduct. As an initial matter, we recommend that the four states (California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) that do not already require that law enforcement officers be certified should establish such systems.
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) provides guidance at a high level on the appropriate topics for certification standards. But states appropriately retain the responsibility for filling in the details and the flexibility to tailor certification standards to their needs.
Beyond IADLEST, there are many sources of best practices in policing, including this Report, but also publications by the Police Executive Research Forum, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and others. The views of those organizations on what makes for a professional police force should inform POST standards. Most systems establish minimum certification standards on matters like age, education, and physical capacity, and set requirements for training and state certification examinations. POSTs should add substantive certification requirements and standards, which may be derived from these recognized authorities on police best practices cited above, as appropriate.
For example, a background check to ensure an officer candidate’s moral fitness is a component of the IADLEST model and a part of most existing state certification processes. A background check should, of course, inquire into a candidate’s prior employment as a law enforcement officer, including whether the candidate has previously been decertified, terminated, or disciplined. Officers decertified in one state should not be able to obtain certification in another.
But POSTs should also establish additional standards of conduct and appropriate policies for officers, such as against witness intimidation or giving false testimony.
Expanding Grounds for Decertification
The statutory grounds for decertification vary greatly across the states. Some states allow decertification only in narrow, defined cases while other states give POSTs significant discretion to decertify officers. In the most restrictive examples, POSTs may only decertify an officer if the officer has been convicted of a crime bearing on his or her fitness. Others have the authority to decertify an officer for conduct that, for example, shows a “reckless disregard” for public safety.
At a minimum, we recommend that POSTs have authority to decertify officers if that officer’s department has terminated him or her for conduct that violates the professional standards of policing by showing a reckless disregard for public safety or involving acts of dishonesty—for example, an illegal use of force or falsifying evidence.
POSTs should also have authority to address a pattern of discipline, short of termination, that indicates that the officer is unfit to serve. And if an officer resigns to avoid potential discipline, departments should be authorized to complete investigations and, if appropriate, POSTs should be able to revoke that former officer’s certification.
We do not recommend that POSTs replicate the investigations done by police departments. Departments should have the responsibility and the authority to investigate alleged misconduct and to ensure accountability of officers. But POSTs should have authority to decertify based upon the investigations undertaken by departments.
Improving Information Retention and Sharing Systems
Currently, states may report decertifications to the National Decertification Index maintained by IADLEST, but such reporting is not uniform and, thus, the database is not comprehensive. For this reason, even diligent POSTs (and police departments) may be unable to determine whether a prospective officer has been previously decertified.
State legislatures should consider laws, like one pending in the Massachusetts legislature, that require POSTs to report decertifications to the National Decertification Index. States should also consider establishing public databases of their own to track decertifications and make information available to the public and other states. Regardless of statutory requirements, POSTs should report to the National Decertification Index. More complete information will make the background check process described above more likely to screen out unqualified candidates.
POSTs Should Include Citizens
Some POSTs are made up primarily or exclusively of current or former law enforcement officers and police chiefs. Their experience and perspective are important. But other perspectives would be productive to include as well in POST deliberations about the appropriate certification standards and appropriate exercise of decertification authority. Just as many of the boards that discipline lawyers include non-lawyers, POSTs would benefit from citizen participation. Members should not all be drawn from current or former law enforcement and they should represent a diverse range of backgrounds and professions.
The Role of Departments in Supporting Officer Certification Systems
Police departments play a vital role here. POSTs in many states rely on reports from the departments within the state to learn about officer conduct that could merit decertification. And, as noted, we recommend that POSTs rely upon the investigations undertaken by departments. Some states, such as South Carolina, require departments to report conduct meriting decertification, but many others do not. We recommend that departments adopt a requirement that serious misconduct be reported to the POST.
Obviously, departments should consider prior decertification when contemplating the hiring of an officer. Some states, such as Oregon, require departments to consult, to the extent possible, a candidate officer’s personnel records from other departments in which he or she has served, both within the state and elsewhere. Even where not required, department’s should follow this practice, and should check in- and out-of-state decertification databases, where available, along with the National Decertification Index.
Departments will be able to do their jobs better if they are able to determine whether a candidate for employment has been decertified elsewhere.