If you're a Realtor, contractor, or insurance agent who engages in serious misbehavior, the state can strip you of the license that allows you to practice your profession. Occupational licensing rules often are strict. They include "moral turpitude" clauses that deny licenses to those with convictions—even for crimes that have little to do with the specific work license.
These rules mostly apply to private-sector workers. But many government employees—especially police officers, who have the legal right to use deadly force—have no licensing system. Overly aggressive and corrupt officers might get fired, but there's nothing stopping them from getting another policing job thanks to the power of the state's public-employee unions.
One would expect progressive California to be on the cutting edge of police reform, but Democrats have long been in the pocket of cop unions. And Republicans are their usual selves. They're for limited and accountable government but with an asterisk: Such accountability doesn't apply to uniformed officials who have the most power over our lives.
As a result, we're one of only four states that doesn't have a police-decertification process. I've covered the police abuse issue long before police misconduct had become a national outrage, and I can attest to the way this bipartisan system operated. A police officer might be accused of awful behavior, ranging from on-the-job sex abuse to abusing a detainee.
The police investigate themselves and rarely find wrongdoing. Internal discipline is secret. District attorneys, who often are elected with the support of police unions, file charges only in the most egregious situations—and usually only after an incident has exploded in the media. The Peace Officers Bill of Rights and special local collective bargaining clauses give officers the kind of protections that most of us wish the Bill of Rights really offered.
When police officers are caught red-handed, their agencies routinely allow them to plead their felony to a misdemeanor, which allows them to continue working in law enforcement. Even in the rare instance when DAs prosecute officers, sympathetic juries usually clear them. Google the "Kelly Thomas" case in Fullerton for a desk-pounding example.
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, California Democrats have postured about police reform. But only a handful of measures have become law. The police unions still have their clout, although they've changed their tune. Now they claim to support reforms, yet virtually every one of the proposed reforms is too flawed for them to support. Go figure.
Finally, the state Legislature is getting ready to do something about the decertification situation and, sure enough, the usual suspects are singing that tune. Senate Bill 2 still is alive in the Legislature. It's a remarkably sensible and substantive proposal. Mainly, the legislation "requires minimum training and moral character requirements for peace officers…while at the same time identifying certain disqualifying factors, including a felony conviction."
The bill also "permits a person whose exercise or enjoyment of rights were interfered with in violation of the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act to institute a civil action in their own name and on their own behalf." Imagine that—requiring government officials to be accountable for their actions, and expecting them (or, most likely, the agency that employs them) to buy a liability policy to cover such situations just as private organizations must do.
The Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), which operates a legal-defense fund for police officers, calls this particular bill "dangerous legislation that would not only create an unfair and unreliable process for revoking an officer's license to practice law enforcement."
My Southern California News Group colleague, Susan Shelley, worries that taxpayers will be stuck with the bill after "cities, counties and law enforcement agencies quickly cave to political pressure and settle the lawsuits." Maybe she hasn't noticed, but taxpayers currently pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year in police-misconducted-related lawsuits.
The problem is not that citizens file lawsuits against officials who harm them—but that police continue to leave bad apples on the force, where they engage in behavior that invites lawsuits. Currently, cities pay out settlements but can't keep problem officers out of the profession.
The National Institute of Justice reported that "It's a truism among police chiefs that 10 percent of their officers cause 90 percent of their problems." Maybe it's time to do something about that 10 percent?
The Southern California News Group reported in 2019 that the tiny city of McFarland, "hired a cop investigated in an FBI child porn probe, and another caught up in an LAPD burglary ring…One officer was accused in a lawsuit of having sex with a teenage police explorer scout: another of threatening to jail women if they didn't have sex with him. At least three more had DUIs."
Enough excuses. It's time to create some sort of decertification process for police.
This column was first published by The Orange County Register.