A yearlong Associated Press investigation illuminated the problem of sex crimes and sexual misconduct committed by law enforcement officers in the United States. Below are some questions and answers about the issue, and steps officials have taken to address it:
Q: How big a problem is this?
A: Sexual misconduct is a common reason why law enforcement officers lose their licenses to work, in a process known as decertification. Of some 9,000 decertification cases assembled from 41 states, the AP found about 1,000 officers who lost their licenses for sex-related conduct from 2009 through 2014. Most certainly there are even more than that, because some states did not provide records and others, including New York and California, said they did not decertify officers for misconduct and kept no official tally of officer wrongdoing.
Phil Stinson, a researcher at Bowling Green State University, analyzed news articles between 2005 and 2011 and found that sex-related cases were the third-most common reason that officers were arrested, behind violence and profit-motivated crimes. Cato Institute reports released in 2009 and 2010 found sex misconduct the No. 2 complaint against officers, behind excessive force. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects police data from across the country, doesn’t track officer arrests.
Q: How has law enforcement responded?
A: Police chiefs have long identified sexual misconduct as a major issue. In 2007, the International Association of Chiefs of Police held a session on officer sexual misconduct at its annual meeting. A committee was formed to study the problem and, in 2011, the group issued a report that determined the matter “requires the attention of law enforcement leaders.” The report pointed to conditions of the job that can create opportunities for predators – having authority over others, patrolling alone and late at night, and engaging with vulnerable citizens. It recommended that agencies should:
– Have a written policy addressing sex misconduct that defines offenses and outlines disciplinary sanctions.
– Implement stringent hiring procedures that include medical, psychiatric, psychological, polygraph and integrity testing; detailed personal interviews; thorough background investigations; and a review of social networking websites.
– Use regular evaluations and early intervention systems to spot patterns that could lead to problem behavior.
John Firman, IACP’s research director, said the group continues to review its guidelines and holds meetings with chiefs to discuss violence against women. But he pointed out that the IACP can’t mandate change: “It does take a lot of statewide leadership, and in a uniquely local model of policing, it’s not easy.”
Q: What are some specific steps police officials, individual agencies or states have taken to address this issue?
A: Several police chiefs interviewed by the AP said they worry about problem officers finding their way onto the force, despite best efforts. Some acknowledged that agencies don’t do enough to weed out problem officers. Some blamed other police chiefs for not always telling them about allegations of misconduct or other red flags during the hiring process.
In some departments where officers have committed sexual offenses, chiefs have responded. Some examples:
– John Camper, the police chief in Grand Junction, Colorado, said he refuses to hire any officers whose previous employers won’t provide personnel records or show hesitation in doing so. In 2009, a Grand Junction officer killed himself after being accused of raping a woman he met while investigating a case. The officer had been previously accused of misconduct at another agency, but Grand Junction was not aware when it hired him.
– The San Diego Police Department, which in recent years has faced several officer sex misconduct cases, now requires patrol officers to wear body cameras to bolster accountability; other agencies are doing the same. Chief Shelley Zimmerman also reinstated an internal misconduct investigative unit, and requires that more than one officer be present when women are transported.
– West Sacramento, California, Police Chief Tom McDonald requires a supervising officer on all shifts, and mandates that the audio-visual units in officers’ patrol cars are regularly serviced and used during stops to ensure accountability. A West Sacramento officer was convicted last year of kidnapping five women and either raping them or forcing them to perform oral sex.
A small number of states are also improving how they collect information on officers and discipline them. Illinois, for example, passed a law this year to create a database to monitor officers who are fired for misconduct, as part of a larger bill that set guidelines on body cameras and expanded the role of special prosecutors in misconduct cases.
Q: What role do police unions play?
A: Police unions are sometimes accused of opposing improved efforts to weed out problem officers. Union officials said they’re generally supportive of policies against police misconduct but suspicious of tools that could be used by chiefs to threaten the jobs of police officers who haven’t misused their authority. Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, put the onus on chiefs to do a better job hiring officers. Union officials said current laws provide enough power to law enforcement agencies to police their own ranks.