Why police should be disciplined like doctors and attorneys

A uniform system of adjudication of accused cops could protect officers from politically motivated destruction of police careers


Story tellers can masterfully weave their tales into great life lessons by using a single example. Journalist and critics can, too.

After describing an egregious case of an officer with a history of problems who nevertheless was hired as a police chief, USA TODAY identified 32 people who became police chiefs or sheriffs despite a finding of “serious misconduct.” With nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. that doesn’t seem to be a scandalous number. Still, in a series on police accountability, one USA TODAY article offers a searchable database of decertified officers in cooperation with something called the Invisible Institute, a self-described government accountability group.

Yet another article in the series states, “At least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the USA have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past decade, an investigation by USA TODAY Network found. Officers have beaten members of the public, planted evidence and used their badges to harass women. They have lied, stolen, dealt drugs, driven drunk and abused their spouses. Despite their role as public servants, the men and women who swear an oath to keep communities safe can generally avoid public scrutiny for their misdeeds. The records of their misconduct are filed away, rarely seen by anyone outside their departments. Police unions and their political allies have worked to put special protections in place ensuring some records are shielded from public view, or even destroyed.”

Our evolution as a profession necessarily means that the rights and responsibilities should match that of other appropriately regulated professions. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Our evolution as a profession necessarily means that the rights and responsibilities should match that of other appropriately regulated professions. (Photo/PoliceOne)

My math may be wrong, but if we assume there are 850,000 police officers in the U.S. (estimates vary depending on definitions) and it took 10 years to show 85,000 investigations, that’s 1% of officers. Including investigations that did not result in a finding of officer misconduct, the number is even smaller. That is no defense to the officers who are guilty of the betrayal of trust, or the concealment of misconduct. Accountability is vital. But so is context.

How physicians and attorneys are disciplined

In another expose series, USA TODAY found that in many cases, “doctors who surrendered a medical license were able to practice in another state.” National estimates on physician discipline are not easily available, but at least one study cites statistics of from .03%-2.8%. In other words, probably around 1%.

A 2010 study of states’ attorney discipline records (Attorney Discipline Nationwide: A Comparative Analysis of Process and Statistics Debra Moss Curtis, Nova Southeastern University) shows a disciplinary rate of around 1%.

An interesting contrast between the disciplinary system for the high-profile professions of law and medicine compared to the high-profile profession of policing is that in law and medicine, uniform standards of conduct and a uniform mechanism for dealing with misconduct exist. In law enforcement there are as many disciplinary processes as there are police agencies. As one example that Val Van Brocklin vividly explains in her recent PoliceOne article, there are a variety of applications of the Brady ruling and the assumption that being on “the list” is the death knell to a law enforcement career.

As every academy cadet is soberly reminded, there are multiple ways to suffer from accusations of misconduct, some of which accrue even when vindicated. An officer can be sued in both state and federal court, criminally charged in state and federal court, lose their certification (and their life’s work) in a Peace Officer Standards revocation, and be subject to department discipline from lost promotion opportunities to reduction in rank to loss of retirement benefits to firing.

As one of the few lay municipal judges in my state of residence, I recently attended a conference during which one subject was attorney discipline. Lawyers accused of misconduct in my state are funneled to a centralized process for investigation and sanctioning. Most complaints are resolved quickly, with about 5% of complaints proceeding to formal process. A system is in place to mentor and support attorneys. There is a rules committee with clearly established rules of conduct and standards of discipline and range of sanctions with the principle that the least sanction feasible be imposed. Licenses, if suspended, can be reinstated with proof of ability and appropriate atonement.

Police officers should be envious. While doctors judging doctors and lawyers judging lawyers is accepted without a wink, law officers handling law officer misconduct is suspect. While doctors and lawyers can certainly be criminally tried and civilly sued, the multiple levels of accountability, examination, investigation and potential punishment based on multiple evidentiary standards (including, in many workplaces, summary dismissal without cause) faced by police officers seem draconian in comparison.

A uniform system of adjudication of accused officers

No responsible professional in law enforcement opposes accountability. But there are too few voices asking for fairness, redemption, support, consistency and insulation from politically motivated destruction of police careers.

No other profession has their activities self-recorded, publicly videotaped and highly documented as policing. No other profession has stalkers “monitoring” their activities, provoking in hopes of capturing very human responses that can be woven into a story about them behaving wrongly. No other profession bears the indignity of bumper stickers, logo shirts and national organizations pulling strings on the media to form a hostile and sometimes deadlier work environment than already exists in the nature of the work. When was the last time you saw a “F**k the lawyers” t-shirt? When was the last time a doctor found a bullet hole in their personal car?

None of the hardships of policing justify misconduct or release from consequences. It is my hope that a uniform system of adjudication of accused officers will achieve the same attention as other regulated professions. Some possible proposals:

  • A centralized diversion program for accused officers into a dedicated system for review of misconduct allegations requiring police administrators and prosecutors to justify opting out of the program for exceptional cases;
  • Appointment of counsel for accused officers;
  • Defined behavior standards and presumptive ranges for punishment, and a list of mitigating and aggravating factors to develop a disposition matrix;
  • A restorative justice model to retain officers in the career where feasible;
  • Uniform bill of rights for police officers.

These are just a few of the potential foundational principles of revising the handling of police misconduct complaints to replace the inconsistent, often subjective, minefield of consequences that officers must navigate daily in today’s volatile and politicized environment. In my state, an annual license fee of $100 assessed to every certified officer could generate $1.4 million annually to fund such an effort.

Our evolution as a profession necessarily means that the rights and responsibilities should match that of other appropriately regulated professions.

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