American Police Reform Requires a National Registry of Police Misconduct

When it comes to police reform, the time for half-measures is over. As a nation, we have been striving for reform for decades, and we are still not where we aspire to be. The public will to address the trend of abusive policing is as strong as it has ever been, and now is the moment to accelerate initiatives that can effect enduring change.

One necessary and immediately workable solution is a national independent registry tracking police misconduct.

We can all agree that not everyone is suited to be a police officer and not everyone should remain in the ranks of American policing. When I was a Training, Advising and Counseling (TAC) officer, I trained and dismissed cadets at the police academy, with the belief that failing the training program may have actually saved their life or the life of someone else. If someone has proven by their actions that they do not uphold the ethic of protecting and serving, they should no longer be in the profession. Yet, pushing problem officers out of policing is much harder than it might seem.

Reimagine the slow suffocation of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. What if there had been no video and we did not see that horror? Amid more limited community outrage and public attention, the officers could have been terminated and the killing swept under the rug. The officers could then apply to another police department, and those who consider them for employment may have no idea what happened in Minneapolis. This is how problem cops stay in the profession. The solution is to document and monitor who engages in misconduct, such that police departments know before they hire someone just why that would-be officer is looking for a job at another police agency.

The concept of a police misconduct registry is gaining traction. Oregon, for example, is building a statewide database to track disciplinary action taken against state law enforcement. Somewhat less inspiring was the Trump Administration executive order directing the Attorney General to create “a database to coordinate the sharing of information between and among Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies concerning instances of excessive use of force related to law enforcement matters.”

Placing the database in the Attorney General’s office does not advance community trust and police legitimacy. And the administration’s criteria for what should lead to an officer being entered into the registry does not go far enough. A national independent registry should record all officers who were terminated, resigned in lieu of termination or resigned due to misconduct, for at least the following activities: excessive force, corruption, domestic violence, sexual assault, assault and harassment, perjury, falsifying a police report, and planting or destroying evidence.

Meanwhile, state efforts, while praiseworthy, are inherently limited to local borders. If a problem officer leaves the state, would neighboring departments from other states have access to or even knowledge of the database? What’s needed is a national registry built, supplied and maintained independent from government.

The independent registry moves toward transparency by increasing departmental accountability to the communities they serve. For example, departments in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island cannot revoke a police officer’s certification over misconduct. With hard, transparent data curated by an independent institution, it becomes increasingly difficult for departments to dodge accountability for employing officers who are public threats rather than public servants.

To be sure, there are hurdles ahead. Current laws in many cities create substantial barriers for communities seeking to address police violence and racial discrimination. In California, the Peace Officers Bill of Rights (which has comparable counterparts across the country) prohibits derogatory information from being entered into an officer’s personnel file. Revising those statutes to facilitate an officer’s entry into the registry does not require personal information that would constitute invasion of privacy, such that disclosure would pose a danger to the officer’s physical safety. In that regard, California is responding. Assembly Bill 1299 would create new California Penal Code section 13510.6 that will require law enforcement agencies to notify the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training when a peace officer separates from employment, including details of any termination or resignation in lieu of termination.

In this national effort, police unions will necessarily be a part of the conversation, as research suggests they play an undeniable role in thwarting the transformation of police departments. It is encouraging that three of the largest police unions in California have proposed a national reform agenda intended to improve the relationship between police and communities. But talk is cheap, and the status quo is always a looming threat to progressive change.

The pernicious trend of problem officers bouncing from agency to agency must stop now. A national independent registry is an obvious element in police reform and one that is long overdue.

Erroll Southers

Erroll Southers

Dr. Erroll Southers is the Director of the SCI Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies Program and award-winning Professor of the Practice of Governance in the Sol Price School of Public Policy. He is a former FBI Special Agent, Presidential nominee for TSA Administrator and California Governor’s appointee to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. He holds roles around the world and throughout the international counterterrorism and national security arena.