Police have far greater authority than just about anyone else in our society. They are given the right to detain, search and arrest people. They are even permitted to use deadly force in certain situations. As such, it seems reasonable to hold officers of the law to a higher standard than the average civilian. After all, it doesn’t seem right to send out a convicted sex offender to investigate a sex crime.
But while most people agree that this should be common sense, California state law allows police convicted of misdemeanor crimes to continue working in the law enforcement field, leaving these employment decisions up to local police chiefs and sheriffs. In fact, our state is one of only five that has no police decertification process, the process of removing an officer’s right to work in the law enforcement industry, to strip badges away from officers guilty of misconduct. (It’s worth noting that the push to decertify police should in no way be confused with the more controversial efforts to defund the police.)
Is There Really a Problem?
If this decision was left up to local chiefs and sheriffs, who all had higher standards for their officers than a typical member of the community, this wouldn’t be much of an issue. But in the real world, plenty of leaders of these law enforcement agencies are willing to allow officers who have been convicted of serious crimes to stay on the force. Legally, an officer convicted of a felony cannot keep his position. But those who have been found guilty of misdemeanors need only be accepted by the head of their department. And police officers are far more likely than other members of the community to have felony charges plead down to misdemeanors, leaving them eligible to continue serving the public. In fact, a 2019 investigation by multiple news outlets statewide discovered that 630 California law enforcement officers convicted of misdemeanor crimes in the past decade were still employed at least a year after the conviction. 100 of those officers had been convicted of DUI and second only behind drunk driving charges was domestic violence charges.
This is particularly problematic because domestic violence charges should make someone ineligible to serve as law enforcement agents because those convicted of these charges cannot carry or use a gun under federal law. Instead, these officers are generally told they can only carry a weapon while on duty and then permitted to continue working. In fact, the investigation discovered multiple incidents where officers convicted of domestic assault were still issued to investigate cases of domestic violence.
The Push to Decertify Police In California
This is why many people have began pushing for California to create a method to allow for the decertification of officers guilty of misconduct the same way as other professionals may lose their licenses for violating the standards of their profession. Just about every other state has some method to decertify police and many do not even require a conviction to do so. In Florida and Georgia, officers can be kicked out of the industry for all types of misconduct, including acting unethically or committing acts of moral turpitude. As a matter of fact, these states are responsible for nearly half of all police decertifications nationwide.
A bill to allow for police to be decertified in California, SB 731, failed after failing to even be put to a vote thanks, in part to the state’s powerful police union lobby. But SB 731 was also a bit broad, aiming to revoke some level of qualified immunity, which would make it easier for victims of civil rights violations by police to sue for civil damages, which is something police organizations have been particularly adamant against.
A new and more narrowly tailored bill, SB 2, was introduced in December and is now making it through the Senate’s Rules Committee. This bill only covers a new way to decertify police, which may make it more likely to become law in the near future.
California needs these types of police reforms both to maintain public trust in our law enforcement agencies as well as to reduce the risk of police abuses. It is worth noting that the investigation of officers who have been convicted of crimes revealed 52 cases of forcible sexual offenses. These people should not be in a place of authority, particularly where they could be asked to assist victims of these types of crimes.
If you had a negative encounter with a police officer, you can actually verify if he or she has been convicted of a crime by searching the database available on The Voice of San Diego’s website. If you have been charged with a crime and have found that an officer involved in your case has a conviction that could affect your case, be sure to mention this to your attorney.
Peter M. Liss can help those who have been accused of a crime. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.