Lansing — Michigan lawmakers voted Tuesday to prevent police misconduct from being kept secret when officers leave for a new job at another department.
Legislation approved 105-2 in the House would require law enforcement agencies to keep records about the circumstances surrounding any officer’s employment separation. The officer would have to sign a waiver allowing a prospective employer to ask for the records, and the department could not hire the officer unless it receives the documents.
The bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, said it targets officers who find other work after questionable conduct such as using excessive force. The legislation won unanimous Senate approval in March and should soon reach Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for his expected signature.
Law enforcement agencies often decide it is easier to tell an officer to resign rather than fire him or her, Jones said, due to expensive legal bills and a lengthy hearing process. And when a prospective employer calls to inquire about hiring the officer, the department typically provides little information for fear of being sued by the officer, said Jones, a former sheriff.
“It’s just a commonsense way we hope to combat the gypsy cop,” he said of the legislation. The state Freedom of Information Act exempts law enforcement personnel records from public records requests unless the public interest in disclosure outweighs nondisclosure.
Jones introduced the bill after he said an Eaton County deputy who was accused of making an abusive and improper traffic arrest resigned and quickly landed a similar job in Lenawee County, only to be sued for two alleged assaults that occurred in his new job.
Under the measure, agencies would be required to let a separating officer review the separation record and to submit a written statement explaining the officer’s disagreement. The former employer would have to give a copy of the records to a prospective employer upon receiving a waiver.
The agency also would be immune from civil liability for disclosing the records in good faith.
The bill was backed by the Michigan State Police and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. It was opposed by the Police Officers Association of Michigan, a union representing more than 12,000 law enforcement officers.
A 2015 national investigation by The Associated Press found that law enforcement officers accused of sexual misconduct had jumped from job to job because of a tattered network of laws and lax screening that allowed them to stay on the beat. There is a national index of decertified officers, but contributing to it is voluntary and experts say the database, which is not open to the public, is missing thousands of names.
Some officers are permitted to quietly resign and never even face decertification. Agencies also may not check references when hiring, or fail to share past problems with new employers.
It appears few states have laws addressing the movement of problem officers to other agencies. The National Conference of State Legislatures’ website says Connecticut prohibits police departments from hiring any officer who was dismissed for misconduct or who resigned or retired while under investigation for misconduct. Colorado police departments are required to share information about the misconduct or misrepresentations made by officers seeking employment with another agency within the state.
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