Ohio has failed to decertify convicted officers
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bobby Cutts Jr. was notorious in the law enforcement community because of his crime: While still a police officer, he killed his lover and their unborn child.
Stripping him of his police powers should have been routine. But the state didn't begin the process until The Associated Press asked about his status.
Cutts was one of 10 officers convicted in the past five years that the AP found still had the authority to make an arrest or carry a gun, at least on paper. The state now says it's taking a more aggressive approach to finding such convictions in hopes of catching the cases that fall through the cracks.
The Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy says it doesn't know how many convictions it misses but believes the number is small.
The agency also says the number doesn't matter.
"Law enforcement does not want the public to believe that any officer has an opportunity to be a peace officer once they've been convicted of a crime," said Bob Fiatal, a liaison with federal police for the academy.
Ohio, with about 35,000 police officers, decertified 19 officers in 2007, the last year full data on all completed cases was available.
Under state law, police officers charged with serious crimes are decertified once they are convicted. Merely resigning or being fired does not mean an officer would lose his police powers. The crimes include murder, theft and robbery.
Once the process begins it's a simple matter of paperwork. But it can be difficult finding those officers, with timing and the type of court sometimes complicating matters.
The state relies on courts to report convictions and tracks media reports of arrested officers. In the past, the academy asked prosecutors to verify a conviction if there wasn't official notice. Now the agency assigns investigators to verify the information themselves.
"We just can't dump on the courts on this thing," Fiatal said. "It's all law enforcement's responsibility to take care of our own."
But it's still unclear how Cutts slipped through the system.
Fiatal, until recently the academy's interim director, knew about the case from the day in June 2007 that Cutts was arrested in the slaying of Jesse Davis. Most police officers did.
But for whatever reason, that knowledge didn't transfer to decertification.
"I was aware of it. And I think the staff was even aware of it here," Fiatal said. "As to why there was no action taken on it, I can't respond."
Canton police Chief Dean McKimm says the department notified the state once Cutts resigned in 2007.
State law requires a judge who sentences a police officer to notify the clerk of courts of the conviction. The clerk must then tell the state.
But Cutts resigned before going to trial. That means he was no longer a police officer when sentenced last year by Judge Charles Brown of Stark County Common Pleas Court.
Brown noted that fact when asked whether he should have reported Cutts' conviction. He declined to comment further or to say whether he thought there was a problem with the law. "I'm a judge; I'm not a legislator," he said.
Cutts was convicted Feb. 15, 2008. He was decertified Feb. 2 of this year.
Another problem with the reporting system: Officers who commit crimes are often prosecuted by federal courts, which aren't bound by state laws. No federal law requires such reporting.
The state began decertifying six former officers convicted in federal courts after their cases were pointed out by the AP.
Those included former Zanesville police officers convicted of scheming to steal cocaine from a Columbus drug dealer and sell it in Zanesville, a city of 25,000 in eastern Ohio.
Zanesville police Chief Eric Lambes said his office called the training academy after Sean Beck and Trevor Fusner, both members of the city department, were arrested in 2007
Beck, who pleaded guilty last year, has a hearing in April on his request to withdraw his plea. Fusner is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence.
"We don't want anybody to slip through the cracks and get hired by a department later on and find out that department hired somebody who shouldn't be a police officer," Lambes said.
James Bonini, clerk of the federal courts covering the southern half of Ohio, acknowledged the apparent problem created by differing state and federal requirements.
Since the federal courts prosecute relatively few police officers, it shouldn't be difficult to single out the cases and alert the state, said U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Sargus, who presided over the Zanesville drug case.
Cutts, 31, escaped a death sentence when a jury sentenced him to life with parole possible after 57 years. He has appealed his conviction.