Cast-Out Police Officers Are Often Hired in Other Cities
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
As a police officer in a small Oregon town in 2004, Sean Sullivan was caught kissing a 10-year-old girl on the mouth.
Mr. Sullivan’s sentence barred him from taking another job as a police officer.
But three months later, in August 2005, Mr. Sullivan was hired, after a cursory check, not just as a police officer on another force but as the police chief. As the head of the department in Cedar Vale, Kan., according to court records and law enforcement officials, he was again investigated for a suspected sexual relationship with a girl and eventually convicted on charges that included burglary and criminal conspiracy.
“It was very irritating because he should never have been a police officer,” said Larry Markle, the prosecutor for Montgomery and Chautauqua counties in Kansas.
Mr. Sullivan, 44, is now in prison in Washington State on other charges, including identity theft and possession of methamphetamine. It is unclear how far-reaching such problems may be, but some experts say thousands of law enforcement officers may have drifted from police department to police department even after having been fired, forced to resign or convicted of a crime.
Yet there is no comprehensive, national system for weeding out problem officers. If there were, such hires would not happen, criminologists and law enforcement officials say.
Officers, sometimes hired with only the most perfunctory of background examinations — as Kansas officials said was the case with Mr. Sullivan — and frequently without even having their fingerprints checked, often end up in new trouble, according to a review of court documents, personnel records and interviews with former colleagues and other law enforcement officials.
As fatal police shootings of unarmed African-American men and sometimes violent protests have roiled the nation, the question of how best to remove the worst police officers has been at the core of reform attempts.
But a lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, opposition from police executives and unions, and an absence of federal guidance have meant that in many cases police departments do not know the background of prospective officers if they fail to disclose a troubled work history.
Among the officers, sometimes called “gypsy cops,” who have found jobs even after exhibiting signs that they might be ill suited for police work is Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014.
Before he was hired in Cleveland, Officer Loehmann had resigned from a suburban police force not long after a supervisor recommended that he be fired for, among other things, an inability to follow instructions. But Cleveland officials never checked his personnel file.
Officer Loehmann, who was not indicted, remains on the Cleveland force. He is on desk duty pending the result of an administrative review, Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, a police spokeswoman, said.
While serving as a St. Louis officer, Eddie Boyd III pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in the face in 2006, and in 2007 struck a child in the face with his gun or handcuffs before falsifying a police report, according toMissouri Department of Public Safety records.
Though Officer Boyd subsequently resigned, he was soon hired by the police department in nearby St. Ann, Mo., before he found a job with the troubled force in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, was fatally shot by a white officer in 2014.
Officer Boyd is being sued by a woman in Ferguson who said he arrested her after she asked for his name at the scene of a traffic accident. He declined an interview request.
The Ferguson police declined to comment about him, but said in a statement that their applicants “undergo extensive investigation before final hiring decisions are made, which includes, but is not limited to, a psychological examination, investigation of an applicant’s prior work history, consultation with applicant’s previous employers and a criminal background check.”
Across the state, the Kansas City police fired Kevin Schnell in 2008 for failing to get medical aid for a pregnant woman after arresting her during a traffic stop. The baby was delivered, but died a few hours later.
Officer Schnell has since been hired by two other Missouri police departments, including his current employer in Independence. Officer Schnell and the Independence police declined to comment.
Criminologists and police officials said smaller departments and those that lack sufficient funding or are understaffed are most likely to hire applicants with problematic pasts if they have completed state-mandated training, which allows departments to avoid the cost of sending them to the police academy. Such officers can start work almost immediately, usually at a modest salary.
But police officials say most departments perform reasonably well in discovering when officers have histories of misconduct.
In addition to checking applicants’ work and criminal histories, and having a psychologist interview them, departments like those in Seattleand Austin, Tex., check credit histories. The Houston and Phoenixpolice departments are among those that administer polygraph tests.
Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at St. Louis University and an authority on police licensing laws, said that using the National Practitioner Data Bank for physicians as a model, the government must establish a database of officers who have criminal convictions, have been fired or forced to resign, have had their law enforcement licenses revoked, or have been named in a judgment or settlement involving misconduct.
“After Ferguson and the other stuff that’s happened, if we can’t get this done now, when are we going to get it done?” he said.
Last year, in a report by President Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing, law enforcement officials and others recommended that the Justice Department establish a database in partnership with theInternational Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which manages a database of officers who have been stripped of their police powers. There are some 21,000 names on the list, but Mike Becar, the group’s executive director, said his organization lacked the resources to do a thorough job.
“It’s all we can do to keep the database up,” he said.
The Justice Department, which gave the association about $200,000 to start the database in 2009, no longer funds it. The department declined to explain why it had dropped its support, but a spokesman said the goal was “ensuring that our nation’s law enforcement agencies have the necessary resources to identify the best qualified candidates to protect and serve communities.”
Law enforcement groups advocating reforms say an effective database would go a long way toward ensuring that unfit officers are not given multiple chances.
“Every chief wants as much information as possible about potential hires before making a hiring decision, and hiring one wrong person can undo a lot of an agency’s prior good work,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policy group.
He said that while his group was investigating hiring practices in St. Louis County, Mo., after Mr. Brown’s death, it found that officers facing severe discipline and possible termination in many agencies were routinely allowed to resign to avoid a record of having been fired.
“They could then join another area department,” Mr. Wexler said.
Mr. Sullivan, who became the police chief in Cedar Vale, Kan., after being convicted on a harassment charge for kissing a 10-year-old girl, had been the second-highest-ranking officer in Coquille, Ore., before he was forced to resign in November 2004.
While prosecutors suggested that he had been “grooming” the girl for a sexual relationship, he avoided a jail sentence.
But in August 2005, not long after an Oregon judge barred Mr. Sullivan from working as a police officer, the Cedar Vale Police Department hired him. Mr. Sullivan had not told anyone about his past, local officials said. City officials involved in his hiring no longer work for Cedar Vale.
Prosecutors in Kansas investigated a relationship between Mr. Sullivan and a 13- or 14-year-old girl, but the girl refused to cooperate and the investigation was dropped, Mr. Markle, the Kansas prosecutor, said. Mr. Sullivan did not respond to a letter seeking comment.
Eventually, officials checked the police decertification database and found Mr. Sullivan’s Oregon conviction and the order barring him from police work.
Wayne Cline, Cedar Vale’s current police chief, never met Mr. Sullivan, but said he is still talked about around town.
“Everybody was surprised and would say, ‘He was such a nice guy,’ and I would think, ‘Yeah, he’s a con man. They’re like that.’”