What if you built a database of bad cops? They did — but not everyone uses it

David Ingram
·6 min read

From his home in Idaho, Mike Becar oversees the closest thing the U.S. has to a national database of police misconduct: the National Decertification Index, which has records on tens of thousands of police officers who've done something bad enough to be stripped of their certifications.

But he sometimes gets the sense that people overlook the index in the national debate around race and policing — for example, when they suggest creating it.

"You read a lot of comments saying, 'We need a national decertification database,'" said Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

"There already is one existing," he said. "They're just not aware of it."

What became the National Decertification Index was dreamed up two decades ago, just as the first internet bubble was inspiring more ways to share information online.

Now, as Black Lives Matter protests spur new efforts nationwide to overhaul policing, the index may offer a few lessons, including about the limits of technology to solve thorny problems, the political power of police organizations and the years of anonymous organizing needed to achieve even incremental progress.

Decertifying police officers means a state has revoked the equivalent of their professional licenses, which in many places are a requirement to work in law enforcement. The reasons vary, for anything from sexual misconduct to driving while impaired to misuse of a firearm. Just because officers are fired doesn't mean they're decertified.

There's growing political momentum behind raising the profile of the index. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said during Wednesday's debate with Vice President Mike Pence that she and Joe Biden would "require a national registry for police officers who break the law."

The Trump administration has expressed interest in an expanded database, too. In an executive order in June, President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department to create a database that would cover federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement agencies; it would also have information about terminations and civil judgments.

That's similar to a proposal from the Obama administration, which in 2015 recommended expanding the decertification index to cover all law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in a report by the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Becar said he's in talks with the Justice Department but isn't sure when or whether something might happen.

"We've kept it going on a shoestring budget," he said, noting that his association is a private, membership-based training group. "We offer it as a free service to any law enforcement agency in the country. We've never had the marketing money to really advertise it."

Mollie Timmons, a Justice Department spokesperson, declined to comment.

The original purpose of the index was to stop former officers from getting hired again without their new agencies' knowing about severe misconduct in previous jobs. It reflects the view that police officers should be treated like doctors, lawyers or other highly regulated professionals who need state-issued certifications or licenses to work — and who shouldn't be able to evade accountability by crossing state lines.

In at least some states, sheriff’s deputies and prison guards are also eligible for decertification for wrongdoing.

"We had what we called 'wandering officers,'" said Ari Vidali, CEO of Envisage Technologies, an Indiana company that provides software to help run the index.

"They would be decertified in Florida, but they'd move to Georgia or Texas or Indiana, and there was no database back in the day to be able to look up whether they were decertified in another state," Vidali said.

A study published this year by two law professors based on 30 years of data in Florida found that "wandering officers may pose serious risks" because they are more likely than others to be fired from their next jobs or to be the subjects of complaints. When they do get jobs again, they tend to move to areas with slightly larger communities of color, the study found.

The National Decertification Index, which collects records from 44 states, includes 29,000 instances in which a certification to be a police officer has been revoked. That roughly translates to 29,000 names, although there are officers who've been decertified from law enforcement in multiple states, Becar said.

But the index is limited. It doesn't have the names of police officers who've committed misconduct but still kept their certifications, even if they've been fired.

The index doesn't even have full records of the conduct in question. Those records are retained by state agencies, and if background investigators for local police departments want to see them, they need to contact the state directly.

The index isn't accessible to the public, and those with access don't always use it. Only about 3,500 of the 18,000 local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. query the index when they're thinking of hiring new officers, although they're all eligible to, Vidali said.

Everything about the index is voluntary, which experts said is one reason it's not more widely used or better known. There's no national requirement that states contribute names, and law enforcement agencies can hire someone even if they're in the database.

"If you don't have mandates, people won't do it," Vidali said.

Five states have no process at all to decertify police officers: California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. A sixth, Georgia, does decertify officers, but it doesn't participate in the national index.

Debates about participating continue in each of the states, but even after this summer's Black Lives Matter protests, some state lawmakers were unmoved. A bill in California named for a Black man who was shot and killed during a police chase, Kenneth Ross Jr., didn't make it out of the Legislature after opposition from police unions.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat who sponsored the California bill, said he plans to introduce it again. He said there's a "wash, rinse, repeat" cycle in which a small number of bad cops get rehired and have disproportionate impacts on nonwhite communities.

"Black and brown people don't hate the police. They fear the police. And this decertification is one of the ways of removing that fear of the police," he said.

Each state has its own criteria for when to revoke badge privileges, with no accepted national standard. About a third of states require a criminal conviction for an officer to lose certification, said an expert in the field, Roger Goldman, a law professor at Saint Louis University.

"The fact is that the states vary all over the place," he said.

There's an appetite for more information about police misconduct, and others besides Becar's group have stepped in with databases of their own, but those are a patchwork. The news organization ProPublica this year published a database of thousands of civilian complaints against New York City police officers including complaints where allegations were not substantiated. The Invisible Institute, a Chicago journalism organization, has published complaint records in its own database.

Goldman, who has advocated since the 1970s for states to adopt ways to decertify officers, said state lawmakers have often dragged their feet in the absence of a shooting death or other high-profile allegation of misconduct.

"It's things like George Floyd's death," he said. "It usually takes a pretty bad incident."