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When bad cops get fired, they often move a few towns over and get hired by another police department. Several states in the U.S. don’t even have the power to stop them.
But California isn’t one of them anymore, thanks to a slate of new bills signed into law Thursday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
One of the major reforms in the package allows a panel made of police officers, civilians, and legal experts to “decertify police” officers—or take away their ability to work as a cop—for life. It’s one of the strongest and commonly used protections that career cops have in California, according to Rashidah Grinage, a spokesperson for the Coalition For Police Accountability in Oakland.
“One of the big challenges we have is that even when officers are fired, they still have the right to arbitration,” she said. “In many cases, cities who have fired officers are forced to rehire them. It's a very steep hill to climb. Because they have so many protections built into state law that allow them a lot of grievance rights.”
In New Jersey, Hawaii, and Rhode Island, however, cops can still skip town and essentially restart their careers with a clean slate elsewhere. And introducing ways of decertifying cops has been an uphill battle.
“Police unions and law enforcement unions, in general, have a lot of clout,” Grinage said. “So as a political factor, it becomes difficult to overcome that kind of influence on legislative bodies.”
In California, several unions, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League, California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the California Peace Officers Association, and others, opposed the bill, according to the Los Angles Times. Their staunch opposition is part of the reason why efforts to pass a version of the bill in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder stalled in legislative limbo.
The investigative process of troubled police officers in California is currently handled by the state’s Commission on Peace Officers Standers and Training (POST), a 17 member group dedicated to investigating the officers. But with the new bill, the governor will assign a new, nine-person POST accountability advisory board at the start of next year. The accountability board will be made up of six members of the public, two cops and one attorney who specializes in civilian oversight, all of whom will hold office for up to three years. The separate board will be responsible for reviewing POST’s investigation of the terminated officer and recommending a ruling on permanent disbarment.
Before the bill passed, three officers fired for their involvement in a fatal 2018 shooting managed to find jobs at police departments and sheriff’s offices in Alameda, Solano, and Emeryville over the next couple of years, local news outlet Oaklandside reported this week. In 2019, the Mercury News published an investigation into the McFarland Police Department for hiring at least nine officers who were fired for a variety of offenses including insurance fraud, possession of child porn, DUIs, and more.
“We’ve had several cases of that sort,” Grinage said. “We had a police officer in Oakland who shot someone, was fired, and then got hired in another jurisdiction in Modesto and continued to engage in misconduct there. We also had another officer who was problematic in Oakland then became problematic in Vallejo. Those are just two examples, but there are many others.”
California’s new bill is the latest in nationwide efforts to expand this particular type of accountability. Last year in Virginia, where cops can already be decertified, legislators included officers who violate the state’s professional standards of conduct as well as those who resign in the middle of a decertification process. Prior to this, cops who walked away from the job during the process are allowed to return to the profession elsewhere, a loophole that many were known to use.
The governor of Massachusetts also signed a bill similar to California’s late last year, and in New Hampshire, a retired police chief is advocating for a decertification process that has county attorneys playing a more direct role.