Chattanooga area law enforcement leaders voice support for national officer decertification database

Rosana Hughes, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·6 min read

Feb. 20—Last year, amid a national outcry for police reform and accountability, Gov. Bill Lee announced "definitive action" in response, including better access for local law enforcement to a little-known national database of decertified officers.

After the Times Free Press reported this past week that a Chattanooga police officer resigned late last year just before being fired for stealing guns from dead residents — and will be recommended for decertification — Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy expressed support for expanding the database.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and other law enforcement leaders also voiced support, though not all support the information being made public.

At the national level, talks about creating such a database grew following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent protests that turned into a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice.

But the database — the National Decertification Index — already exists and has been around for two decades. While it's a free tool that tracks officers who have lost licenses due to misconduct, it has operated on no government funding since 2005 until now, something its director said has contributed to the lack of awareness of its existence.

Not all states participate in reporting decertified officers, though — partly because four states do not have a process to decertify officers — and it does not include officers who have been terminated but not decertified. It also is not mandatory for states to report each officer who has been decertified or for local agencies to query the index before hiring, and it's currently only available to agencies that know about it and request access to it, meaning it is not public.

Currently, between five and 6,000 of the nation's roughly 12,000 local agencies have access to the database, maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training. It contained 29,688 decertifications as of Friday, reported by 45 states. One state — Georgia — is still in the process of adding its decertified officers, Mike Becar, project director for the database, told the Times Free Press.

As of now, the list is just that: a list. It contains no records beyond identifying information, such as an officer's name and birth date, Becar said. If a hiring agency queries the index and gets a hit, it can then contact the state agency that decertified the officer for more information.

The association is in talks with the U.S. Department of Justice to expand the database, Becar said. What that expansion will ultimately look like is not clear. But an executive order issued over the summer by then-President Donald Trump offers an idea of what the index could become, as Vice President Kamala Harris has also said she and President Joe Biden would require a national registry.

According to the order, the database should track terminations or decertifications, as well as criminal convictions and civil judgments against officers for excessive use of force. And it called on the attorney general to make periodical, anonymized data reports available to the public.

"When we talk about expanding the [National Decertification Index], it's support of the national efforts to create this index — as a nation, as an industry, as a profession," Roddy said, adding that the Chattanooga Police Department is one of the agencies that consults the index before hiring officers.

The department also regularly requests the decertification of fired officers. Since 2015, it has requested or is in the process of requesting decertification for 26 of 28 fired officers.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office did not fulfill a request for the same information before print deadline.

Roddy said he supports the increased funding and focus on expanding the index so that more agencies participate and more issues are tracked — such as judicial findings against officers accused of misconduct — not only decertifications. And he hopes that those findings are uploaded to the database "as timely and as quickly as they can be so that they are available for other agencies as quickly as possible."

"Probably the most exciting aspect of it is to be able to build a system that is large enough and sustainable enough to really do what we wanted to do, which is to make sure that officers that have violated a community's trust in one community don't get the opportunity to do that in another," he said.

Hammond said that, "from a police standpoint in good policing, I'm for anything that is going to help us get better quality law enforcement officers ... so when we have something like this coming along at the national level, you know, we always look at it and see whether or not it will help enhance what we're already doing ... so yeah, if it helps us get better quality options, I'm gonna be for it."

Signal Mountain Police Chief Mike Williams, East Ridge Police Chief Stan Allen, Bradley County Sheriff Steve Lawson and Cleveland (Tennessee) Police Chief Mark Gibson also voiced support.

"The index gives us information from other states and agencies that an applicant may not be forthcoming with on their application," Lawson said in a statement, something that Williams echoed, saying, "[The index] should help prevent individuals from jumping from one jurisdiction/state to another running from a record of misconduct or unsuitable job performance. The idea is long overdue."

As for whether the index should be made public, Hammond said he fully supports the list being made public, so long as it includes official, finalized findings after officers have been granted their due process.

"If you've got a bad cop out here, people ought to know that ... not only have they broken the public trust, but they've broken the trust of the agency that hired them," he said. "I don't believe they ought to ever serve in that capacity again.

"The days are over when police officers or agencies can cover for other agencies or other police officers," he said. "We just can't afford to do that anymore."

Hammond's chief deputy, Austin Garrett, took it a step further, saying he thinks the public should be able to look up whether an officer is currently certified (barring personal contact information), just like any other professional licensed by the state.

Roddy, however, said he thinks making the list public is something that should be discussed further.

"The public part probably would be a concern to some agencies, and if that would stunt their participation in the program then it might be an unintended consequence that fewer agencies will participate, and the more agencies that participate, the better the index," he said.

In fact, some local chiefs do have concerns.

For example, Lawson said "the index should remain a tool for law enforcement agencies only, to protect the identity of officers who may become targets of those who may use the index to gain intelligence for malicious intent towards officers in general."

And Gibson said he thinks "its purpose should be to assist other [law enforcement] agencies to identify individuals that have been decertified and should no longer serve as a [law enforcement] professional. Anything beyond that would cause some concern."

Police chiefs in Soddy Daisy, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.