Wayward Cops & Excessive Force: Police Accountability in Oklahoma
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Department Officer and years filled with protests and calls for reform, many state legislatures, including those under Republican control such as North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida, have passed legislation strengthening the power to decertify Police Officers engaging in misconduct, and provided mechanisms for sharing that information across agencies and state lines. Oklahoma lags behind the newest round of reforms but a robust decertification process in the state is possible, and would go a long way towards ensuring the safety of Police Officers and the public at large by effectively eliminating problem officers from local departments.
Wayward Cops: The Problem
Absent State decertification, a Police Officer who is fired from his local police department for misconduct, may apply and be hired in a different jurisdiction. These officers tend to be rehired and work in financially strapped departments, known as departments of “last resort” by those within the law enforcement field. A chief of a resource depleted department would rather hire a questionable but certified officer, than spend the money to train and pay for a new recruit while they are in the initial certification process. In other words, rural, resource poor departments have a financial incentive to ignore misconduct and hire offending officers at a discount price. Thus, a situation is created where even the most egregious misconduct does not necessarily bar a Police Officer from working in the law enforcement field, rather they just apply to another department within the state. There are even instances where a single department fires an officer for misconduct and subsequently rehires them at a later date.
While this problem seems insurmountable, with offending officers never truly punished but rather shuffled around, it is important to remember that these “complaint-prone officers” are relatively few, and the vast majority of Police Officers are engaging the public in a positive manner, and carrying out their duties with the utmost professionalism. In fact, a study conducted in Houston revealed that 12% of officers accounted for 41% of citizen complaints of misconduct. Studies conducted in Los Angeles, Washington State, and the Northeast United States reveal similar patterns. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the State of Oklahoma to remove these relatively few “problem” officers from the workforce. Decertification is the best method for accomplishing this.
The Decertification System in Oklahoma
Oklahoma, under the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET), the agency responsible for certifying all law enforcement officers within the state, has created a method to mandatorily decertify Police Officers who are convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, a misdemeanor involving domestic violence, or are the respondent in a Final Victims Protective Order. CLEET also retains the power to permissively decertify a police officer who has been involuntarily committed into a mental health facility or an officer who has intentionally falsified records during certification, records of evidence, or testimony under oath. Importantly however, any employing police department or agency, who has submitted their policies and procedures to CLEET is exempt from CLEET disciplining their officers unless the officer is convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor of moral turpitude, or a misdemeanor involving domestic violence. Thus, decertification is only possible in the event that an officer is convicted of a crime, and all other complaints, including those for excessive force that do not result in a conviction, are disciplined by the local police department itself. Other states, such as Florida and Georgia, have a much broader basis for decertification, including not maintaining good moral character in Florida, and engaging in any unprofessional, unethical, deceptive or deleterious conduct or practice harmful to the public in Georgia.
Oklahoma also certifies other professions, including medical professionals, accountants, and massage therapists, none of whom need to be convicted of a crime to have their license revoked. For example, a medical professional or a massage therapist need only to have committed “unprofessional conduct” to be revoked. These professions are not authorized to use force on the public, nor do they carry firearms, so it is unclear why their basis for decertification is so much wider than law enforcement officers.
Oklahoma By the Numbers
Oklahoma, along with other states, such as Illinois, only decertify upon the conviction of a crime, however local police departments may discipline officers on their own. This process, while not banning the offending officers from working elsewhere in the state, at least removes them from the streets for a time. However, local Oklahoma police departments, such as the Tulsa Police Department, do not sustain allegations of misconduct at a high rate. For example, Tulsa, out of cities with over 100 citizen complaints, sustained those complaints at the fourth lowest rate in the nation, with only 2% of those citizen complaints sustained over a four year period from 2016 to 2020. Oklahoma City does a better job, sustaining 27% of those complaints over the same period. For reference, Miami-Dade County (Florida) sustained 47% of complaints, while Dekalb County (Georgia) sustained 19%. An approach which empowers the local departments to investigate misconduct alone and without supervision necessarily varies the rate of sustained complaints wildly from municipality to municipality, creating a system wherein one city can be much more tolerant of police misconduct than another.
The revocation system a state employs can also vary the number of officers revoked. The table below shows the number of officers decertified in Oklahoma, Illinois, Georgia, and Florida, in order to compare the results of the differing basis for decertification in those states. The number of officers decertified is divided by the total number of law enforcement officers employed in the state in 2020, in order to control for each state’s officer population.
|State||Number of Officers (in 2020)||Number of Officers Revoked (2009-2014)|
(Data only available from 2012-2014).
As these numbers indicate, Georgia and Florida, with a wider basis for decertifying officers, among other differences, revoke licenses for law enforcement officers at a much higher rate than those states (Oklahoma & Illinois) who rely on local police departments to investigate misconduct and only decertify when a crime is committed.
While these numbers seem to indicate a trend, is it possible that Oklahoma Law Enforcement is better trained and behaved than their counterparts in Florida and Georgia? Data on the use of force by Oklahoma Law Enforcement is hard to come by, but as suggested by the ACLU, the data surrounding the discharging of a firearm while on duty acts as a good approximation for individual departmental attitudes and policies towards the use of force.
As the chart indicates, Tulsa and Oklahoma City are both part of the top 5 cities in the United States for police shooting rates among cities with a population over 400,000. Oklahoma City has had one of the top 3 highest rates of police shootings for 4 of the past 7 years. Thus, it appears that the departmental policies of the two main metropolises within the state both favor the use of force more than most cities, and yet, they sustain citizen allegations, at least in the case of Tulsa, at one of the lowest rates in the country.
The Advantages of Decertification
There do exist alternative methods to controlling police misconduct, including civil actions under state and constitutional law against individual officers and municipalities, criminal prosecutions against individual officers, and discipline by the local departments themselves, however none of these methods can contain the problem of wayward officers like decertification. Further, civil actions are marred by the exorbitant cost of litigation to the citizen, the lengthy delay between the incident and a resolution by the court, a possibility of a counterclaim, the jury bias in favor of the police, and qualified immunity. Meanwhile, criminal prosecution of police is another option, but fewer than 2% of killings nationwide by police from 2013 to 2020 have resulted in officers being charged with a crime, with fewer than 1% of those charged resulting in a conviction. Finally, discipline by local departments undermines the victim of police misconduct’s belief in the fairness of the proceedings, and statistically has failed to produce the results in Oklahoma.
In contrast, a broad decertification law, with mechanisms to financially punish offending departments, as well as share that information across agencies and state lines, will not allow offending officers to simply relocate to a jurisdiction of “last resort.” It would also move the cost of litigation to the state, lower the burden of proof from beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial to clear and convincing evidence in an administrative hearing, and remove the prosecution of an offending officer from the local prosecutor, who likely knows the offending officer, to the state attorney general’s office or equivalent, restoring a sense of impartiality to the proceedings.
Oklahoma has a chance to follow the recent wave of police reform by enacting a robust decertification law in order to protect officers and the public, remove the small number of repeat offender officers from the workforce permanently, and not allow them to escape to other jurisdictions in order to continue being a police officer.