Twenty-five Washington law officers and 14 in Idaho were stripped of their badges last year for transgressions as serious as theft and drug charges and as basic as telling a lie.
For Washington, it’s still a fairly new process. Prior to 2002, an officer could be fired from one agency and go to work for another. Since then, 78 officers have been told they can no longer work in law enforcement anywhere in the state – a third of them last year alone – in a process called decertification.
The public has never before been told which Washington officers have been decertified, or why. Until the records were recently requested by The Spokesman-Review, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission considered the information confidential, even though similar information about decertified teachers and health professionals is considered public.
The newspaper’s request prompted a review of that policy, and the commission ultimately determined that state law did not shield the decertified officers from disclosure.
Even in Idaho, which has had a decertification process since the 1980s, there’s been little interest in the process outside law enforcement.
Not that either state has gone out of its way to tell residents about it.
“We have difficulty explaining the process to police agencies, let alone the public,” said Doug Blair, deputy director of operations at the training commission.
With about 10,000 law enforcement officers in Washington and 3,541 in Idaho, only a tiny minority ever face the ultimate disciplinary action of decertification. But more officers are losing their badges than in the past, and Jeffry Black, executive director of Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training, said the decertification process isn’t the only reason.
“I think problems have always been there, but now agencies are being more proactive,” Black said. Washington has only had the process in place for six years.”One reason (that Washington adopted the process) was to ensure that those who were unfit to be law enforcement officers couldn’t work somewhere else,” Blair said.
Fired officers used to move from one location to another without leaving the field of law enforcement.
In one such case, a Spokane County sheriff’s detective served another six years – as chief in St. Maries and as undersheriff in Washington’s San Juan County – after being fired in 1984 for falsifying 23 reports. The officer, now deceased, said he’d investigated crimes he had not.
Under today’s system, he would have been stripped of his badge and unable to work again in law enforcement, at least in Washington and Idaho.
Officers in both states can be decertified for violating certain agency codes of conduct or being convicted of a crime.
Last year, Idaho officers lost their law enforcement credentials for offenses that included mishandling evidence, filing false reports, having sex on duty, accessing porn on a work computer and providing alcohol to minors. A corrections officer for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department was decertified for stealing prescription drugs from an inmate, according to a report by the Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training. And a Bonner County sheriff’s deputy was stripped of his credentials for carrying a concealed weapon while intoxicated.
Washington officers were decertified in 2007 for reasons that included domestic violence, reckless driving, theft, forgery and dishonesty. Since 2002, other Washington officers have been decertified for child molestation, assault, burglary and child rape.
Black said the most common reasons Idaho officers lose their certification is having sex on the job. In Washington, domestic violence and dishonesty are the most common, according to a list provided by the training commission.
“Officers are reflective of society. We are human,” Black said.
The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training office are responsible for certifying police, as well as decertify them.
In both states, officers must pass required tests, including a psychological exam, criminal background check and a polygraph.
Once Washington officers pass those exams and graduate from the law enforcement academy, they are certified. Idaho officers aren’t certified until a year after they’re hired.
Idaho’s Peace Officers Standards and Training office was established in 1970 and has been certifying officers since then. The first Idaho officer to lose his certification, in 1986, was a Homedale police officer who committed assault with intent to commit serious harm, Black said.
Since then, there have been 126 decertifications.
Prior to 1996, Idaho officers had to be a convicted of a crime – misdemeanor or felony – before they were disqualified to work in law enforcement. The statute since has been changed to include violations of codes of conduct, such as lying during an internal investigation, insubordination, mishandling evidence or having sex while on duty.
When Black became executive director of Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training in 2006, he faced a backlog of 74 investigations. The list has since grown to 84 open investigations, and Black has hired six part-time investigators to help clear them.
Idaho law agencies must notify Black’s office if an officer is terminated. But in rare cases, such as when an officer is caught committing a hunting violation, an Idaho officer might actually be decertified by the state before being fired by the boss.
Black looks for stories about officers in newspapers, and sometimes those reports prompt investigations. “We read about when they do something heroic as well as when there’s disciplinary action,” he said.
Investigations are reviewed by a 15-member board that includes chiefs, sheriffs, other law officers, an FBI agent and the criminal law division chief for the Idaho attorney general’s office. Also on the board are the executive director of Association of Idaho Cities and the executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties. That board decides whether an officer loses credentials.
The Washington commission has 14 members, including Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
Idaho’s hearings board and Washington’s commission are appointed by their respective governors.
As in Idaho, Washington agencies must contact the commission if an officer has been fired.
Decertification is decided through an investigation and a series of reviews.
Washington’s statute outlines what is considered disqualifying behavior, including a criminal conviction, lying on the application for certification, or violating certain agency codes of conduct, such as lying.
“It can also include actions that would constitute violations of the law even though the officer is not charged or convicted,” Blair said.
But not every officer fired for dishonesty is decertified. Spokane police Officer John Elam was fired after he lied about whether he was wearing a seat belt during an on-duty crash. Because his dishonesty didn’t occur during an internal affairs investigation, he was not decertified, Kirkpatrick said.