Policing Hiring Practices In The Field Of Law Enforcement

William Melendez had quite a long criminal record—for a policeman. Melendez worked as part of the police force in Garden City, Michigan. In his 15 years as an officer there, he was involved in over a dozen lawsuits alleging various forms of misconduct, including the use of excessive force, planting evidence, making arrests without probable cause, and wrongful death. In one 1996 case, Melendez shot and killed an unarmed motorist whom he had made lie down by the side of the road during a traffic stop. The city settled with the deceased man’s family for $1 million in a plea deal that allowed Melendez to avoid prison. Although this information was in the public record, that did not stop Melendez from landing a new job in Inkster, Michigan, a few years later. In 2016, he was arrested again when released video showed him dragging a man out of his car and beating him unconscious—after stopping him for running a stoplight. Inkster, like Garden City, also settled out of court, awarding the beaten motorist $1.4 million.

In the wake of controversies over recent cases like this one—as well as other nationally publicized police brutality cases in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, and Ferguson, Missouri—many people are beginning to ask questions about how police officers are selected and why some “bad apples” are allowed to move from one jurisdiction to another, despite clearly questionable employment histories. Indeed, a study conducted by the Wall Street Journal followed for seven years the cases of roughly 3,500 officers who lost their jobs due to arrests or convictions and found that over 10% of this group was still working in law enforcement.

Part of problem can be traced to the difficulty of finding people willing to do this dangerous work, as well as the difficulty associated with obtaining the information needed to make better hiring decisions. Although some states have formal decertification lists containing the names of officers who were fired for criminal acts, some do not. Moreover, the decertification process varies widely between states that have such lists. Georgia, for example, decertified close to 6,000 officers in the past nine years, whereas Pennsylvania decertified less than 30 over the same time period. Finally, although it may seem remarkable, there is no national registry that aggregates these state-level data that one could search when making a hiring decision. As a result, decertified cops are able to move from state to state.

The lack of standardization and subjective nature of selection decisions in law enforcement is now a focus of national scrutiny. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a national commission was created to collect, maintain, and distribute decertification data to all states. The goal is to make it easier for those making hiring decisions to isolate officers with troubled pasts and keep them off the streets. For this information to be useful, however, it has to be combined with the creation of a different culture that will promote the use of that information. When Gregory Gaskin, the Inkster police chief who hired William Melendez, was asked whether he had read the prehiring investigation report dealing with Melendez’s background, he simply responded, “Well, I read it, but as far as significance, I didn’t think much of it.”

SOURCES: L. Radnofsky, Z. Elinson, J. R. Emshwiller, and G. Fields, “Why Some Problem Cops Don’t Lose Their Badges,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2016; J. Dawsey and P. Shallwani, “Police Work to Balance Crime Fighting with Protecting Citizen’s Rights,” Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2015; F. Speilman, “Emanual Opens the Door to Relaxing Police Hiring Standards,” Chicago Sun Times, December 14, 2016.

Policing Hiring Practices in the Field of Law Enforcement

William Melendez had quite a long criminal record—for a policeman. Melendez worked as part of the police force in Garden City, Michigan. In his 15 years as an officer there, he was involved in over a dozen lawsuits alleging various forms of misconduct, including the use of excessive force, planting evidence, making arrests without probable cause, and wrongful death. In one 1996 case, Melendez shot and killed an unarmed motorist whom he had made lie down by the side of the road during a traffic stop. The city settled with the deceased man’s family for $1 million in a plea deal that allowed Melendez to avoid prison. Although this information was in the public record, that did not stop Melendez from landing a new job in Inkster, Michigan, a few years later. In 2016, he was arrested again when released video showed him dragging a man out of his car and beating him unconscious—after stopping him for running a stoplight. Inkster, like Garden City, also settled out of court, awarding the beaten motorist $1.4 million.

In the wake of controversies over recent cases like this one—as well as other nationally publicized police brutality cases in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, and Ferguson, Missouri—many people are beginning to ask questions about how police officers are selected and why some “bad apples” are allowed to move from one jurisdiction to another, despite clearly questionable employment histories. Indeed, a study conducted by the Wall Street Journal followed for seven years the cases of roughly 3,500 officers who lost their jobs due to arrests or convictions and found that over 10% of this group was still working in law enforcement.

Part of problem can be traced to the difficulty of finding people willing to do this dangerous work, as well as the difficulty associated with obtaining the information needed to make better hiring decisions. Although some states have formal decertification lists containing the names of officers who were fired for criminal acts, some do not. Moreover, the decertification process varies widely between states that have such lists. Georgia, for example, decertified close to 6,000 officers in the past nine years, whereas Pennsylvania decertified less than 30 over the same time period. Finally, although it may seem remarkable, there is no national registry that aggregates these state-level data that one could search when making a hiring decision. As a result, decertified cops are able to move from state to state.

The lack of standardization and subjective nature of selection decisions in law enforcement is now a focus of national scrutiny. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a national commission was created to collect, maintain, and distribute decertification data to all states. The goal is to make it easier for those making hiring decisions to isolate officers with troubled pasts and keep them off the streets. For this information to be useful, however, it has to be combined with the creation of a different culture that will promote the use of that information. When Gregory Gaskin, the Inkster police chief who hired William Melendez, was asked whether he had read the prehiring investigation report dealing with Melendez’s background, he simply responded, “Well, I read it, but as far as significance, I didn’t think much of it.”

 
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