But carrying out disciplinary action, let alone firing a police officer, is notoriously difficult in the United States. Union contracts give officers protections that have been tied to increases in misconduct8. In many states, a bill of rights for law-enforcement officers shields personnel from investigations into misconduct. “One thing we need to take a hard look at are those state laws and union contracts that provide either flawed or overly protective procedures that insulate officers from appropriate accountability,” says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is a law professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Lawrence Sherman, director of the Cambridge Centre for Evidence-Based Policing in Cambridge, UK, suggests that states have the constitutional power to license, or revoke, the power of any individual to serve as a police officer. “If a state agency was keeping track of everyone’s disciplinary history, they might have taken Derek Chauvin out of the policing business ten years ago,” says Sherman. Chauvin had received 18 complaints against him even before he put his knee on Floyd’s neck. “We monitor performance of doctors,” Sherman adds. “Why don’t we monitor the performance of police officers?”
Even officers who are fired for misconduct are frequently rehired. The police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 had previously resigned from another police department after it had deemed him unfit to serve. The Cleveland police did not review the officer’s personnel file before hiring him, The New York Times reported in 2015. An investigation of public records from Florida showed that about 3% of that state’s police force had previously been fired or had resigned in lieu of being dismissed. The study, published in May, found that these officers tended to move to smaller agencies which served a slightly larger proportion of Black residents, but with no significant difference in crime rates9. They also appeared to be more likely to commit misconduct in the future compared to officers who had never been fired.
“If an officer is fired for misconduct, or resigned to avoid an investigation, they shouldn’t be able to get hired by another agency,” says Stoughton. “This is a low-hanging fruit.”
Federal legislation introduced last month targets barriers to good and fair policing. One bill would effectively end the doctrine of qualified immunity, by which courts have largely prevented officers from being successfully sued for abuse of power or misconduct since the mid-1960s (ref. 10).
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- 8. Dharmapala, D., McAdams, R. H. & Rappaport, J. University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 831 (2018).
- 9.Grunwald, B. & Rappaport, J. Yale Law J. 129, 6 (2020).
- 10. Baude, W. 106 California Law Review 45; University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 610 (2018).
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