In summary

SB 2 would grant the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training the authority to decertify officers who abuse the trust granted them.

By Walter Katz, Special to CalMatters

Walter Katz is a vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures and member of the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing, WKatz@arnoldventures.org. He previously served as Independent Police Auditor for San Jose.

Bad lawyers get disbarred all the time. 

I saw it happen during my nearly two decades as a lawyer in California’s criminal courts. When attorneys mistreat clients and violate their trust, even without breaking the law, the state bar can revoke their license. 

More than 200 occupations are licensed the same way in California, from teachers to doctors. Professions that require public confidence are held to a high standard, and the privilege of practicing can be rescinded for failing to meet it.

Law enforcement is not among those 200. Good officers make decisions about life and liberty with honor every day, but California’s hands are tied when individuals with a badge abuse the trust granted them. 

Officers can be fired for egregious misconduct. But unless they’re convicted of a felony or a few other narrow circumstances, little stops them from reapplying at another department. 

This isn’t how most of the nation works. California is one of only four states – Hawaii, Rhode Island and New Jersey are the others – that can’t revoke an officer’s certification for violating public trust. The Legislature needs to join the rest of the country and allow law enforcement decertification and that means passing Senate Bill 2, introduced by Democratic Sens. Steven Bradford, of Gardena, and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, of San Diego.

If enacted, SB 2 will grant the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) the authority to decertify officers – a power the Legislature unwisely removed in 2003.

When Californians dial 911 or see red and blue lights in the rearview mirror, they deserve to know the officer they’re about to interact with is a model of respectful public service. Unfortunately, investigations have found that’s not always the case.

More than 600 California officers were convicted of a crime between 2009 and 2019, the Mercury News reported. Many committed serious driving offenses. Others were charged with domestic violence. Some killed civilians. And nearly 20% of the officers identified continued to work in law enforcement after their sentencing. 

In other states, these sorts of violations would trigger a process to assess an officer’s fitness – but not in California. Because right now in this state, an officer can get caught up in an FBI child pornography sting and be fired, then get rehired at some other law enforcement agency down the road. 

Formal convictions only capture a narrow picture of misbehavior. Police union contracts, state laws and other barriers to accountability prevent the public from seeing proven abuses of power. SB 2 would allow professional investigators with the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to make findings based on their own investigations or investigations by law enforcement agencies. A nine-member advisory board would then review the findings and make recommendations to the commission, which would make the ultimate licensing decision. 

This ability to decertify officers is critical to building safe communities. 

The most vulnerable neighborhoods, which have the greatest need for trustworthy policing, are often the ones most hurt when bad cops stay on the job.

I serve on the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing, and in a recent report we documented how officers fired for misconduct routinely end up in departments in smaller cities with fewer resources and larger communities of color. 

These trickle-down cops are more likely to continue misusing force. Some research even shows misbehavior can spread like a virus through departments, with otherwise law-abiding officers becoming more likely to cross the line if they see it go unpunished in their ranks. 

Their bad behavior undermines community safety. People who don’t trust officers are less likely to report crimes and cooperate with investigations. And prosecutors can struggle to convict people who pose real threats to the public if jurors don’t believe the testimony of a rogue cop. 

As California grapples with a spike in homicides, it is critical that lawmakers focus on building the community relationships foundational to effective policing. Few individuals are trusted with such a critical role in society. California needs to ensure that trust is well-earned and pass SB 2.

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