Louisiana police agencies fail to report why most officers leave, database shows

State law requires law enforcement to explain reasons for officers’ departures

By: - February 24, 2023 6:00 am
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A 2017 state law requires the agencies to report to the Council on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, when officers quit or are fired and provide a reason why. That could include termination, resignation in lieu of termination or resignation pending the outcome of a misconduct investigation. The law also requires law enforcement agencies to obtain the information from POST before hiring officers who have left other departments.

Of the 148 officers who have changed employment status since 2018 — a number that doesn’t include those who retired — law enforcement agencies failed to report a reason in 51% of the cases, according to the database. At least 14 officers who did not report a reason for leaving were re-hired by another agency.

Louisiana state Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, who sponsored the 2017 legislation as a member of the state House of Representatives, did not respond to requests for comment on why she felt the information was important to report. But Ben Grunwald, a professor at the Duke University School of Law, co-authored a 2020 report on so-called “wandering officers,” those who are fired from one department for possible misconduct claims then rehired by another. Laws like Louisiana’s can help prevent these problem officers from escaping accountability, he said in an interview.

“There’s just very little information for the public to understand the internal workings of police departments,” Grunwald said. “At the very least, having information about who gets fired seems helpful, especially when an officer moves on and gets hired in another agency.”

IPNO discovered the problem while compiling public records for the recently unveiled Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database, a publicly available clearinghouse for records on law enforcement officers across the state. The online database, the first of its kind in Louisiana, includes misconduct claims, citizen complaints, disciplinary proceedings and use of force reports.

Chris Kaiser, advocacy director with the ACLU of Louisiana, said IPNO’s findings on officer transfers represent a failure of “basic government transparency and accountability.”

“I can’t understand why agencies wouldn’t be complying with (the law),” Kaiser said. “We place enormous power in the hands of police officers, and if there are folks with patterns and histories of abuse and misconduct, and in some cases, they’ve been either terminated or forced to resign from their agencies, that’s a matter of public concern.”

Bob Wertz, law enforcement training manager for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which includes POST, said the organization provided the data on officer separations to IPNO but haven’t yet verified the group’s findings. The data also might not be current, as POST has a staff of three people and often can’t keep up with the flood of paperwork announcing changes in employment, he said. There are about 23,000 POST-certified peace officers in Louisiana.

POST develops basic training courses for law enforcement officers and has the power to take away the license required to operate as a police officer, otherwise known as decertification. The law that requires law enforcement agencies to report why an officer leaves does not specify penalties for those that fail to do so.


The database

Jee Park, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans — which represents people who claim that they were unjustly convicted of crimes — said the idea for the accountability database came about after the group kept seeing the names of the same detectives repeated in their cases, which typically involve allegations of excessive force, false arrest and attempts to conceal misconduct. They wanted to do a deeper audit of the detectives’ professional histories, but there wasn’t a publicly available database with that information, so they decided to create one, she said.

Using a grant from Baptist Community Ministries, the Innocence Project New Orleans began the arduous task of requesting records from every law enforcement agency across Louisiana.

“In order to be comprehensive, we needed information on every officer, not just our list of bad cops,” Park said.

In addition to tracking the movement and job status of officers, the database provides downloadable personnel records including full rosters, misconduct allegations, and reported uses of force. It has so far collected 12,343 allegations of misconduct for 2003 to 2022 from 50 agencies in 26 parishes.

The only large law enforcement agencies in Southeast Louisiana that failed to provide data to IPNO were the Jefferson and St. Bernard parish sheriffs’ offices.

The October launch of the Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database comes at a vital time, said New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Stella Cziment. The New Orleans Police Department is currently engaged in a push to hire additional officers, many of whom will come from other agencies throughout the state. LLEAD will allow the monitor to “track where problematic officers end up and advise the NOPD about high-risk hiring decisions before officers with histories of violence are put in positions where they can potentially harm the public again,” Cziment said.

Attempts to create similar databases on the federal and state levels have been limited and scattershot. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in May to create a national database of misconduct records for federal law enforcement agencies, but it has yet to launch. Only 12 states operate misconduct databases, with the bulk of these created after the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, according to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

That group’s CEO and executive director, Mike Becar, said it created one of the first national databases over 20 years ago after noticing a growing trend of officers fired for misconduct being rehired by neighboring police departments that might have been unaware of their histories. It’s an unfortunate fact that many small police departments lack the resources to conduct proper background checks, which is why the availability of this information is vital, Becar said.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Richard A. Webster, Verite
Richard A. Webster, Verite

Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and claims of racial and economic inequities within Louisiana’s Road Home recovery program following Hurricane Katrina. Webster previously was a member of The Times-Picayune’s investigative team, reporting on numerous special projects including “The Children of Central City,” an in-depth look at childhood trauma through the lens of a youth football team; “A Fragile State,” a multi-part series on Louisiana’s mental health care system; and “Dying at OPP,” which examined the deaths of inmates in Orleans Parish Prison.