Differing standards make tracking poor cops challenging

NEWARK — A series of shoplifting offenses could cost a police officer his certification in Indiana or Pennsylvania, but that wouldn’t keep an Ohio officer off the streets.

Each state has its own laws about what qualifies as a valid reason for revoking a police officer’s certification, which is awarded after the successful completion of training and is a prerequisite for most law enforcement positions.

Under Ohio law, peace officers’ certifications can be revoked if they plead guilty to a felony offense — which can range from drug possession to murder — or to a reduced charge as part of a plea agreement and surrender their certification.

Concerns about troubled officers finding new jobs in law enforcement have become apparent twice in recent weeks in Perry and Licking counties.

A Perry County Sheriff’s Office detective, who shot a man multiple times during a February arrest and had a history of questionable conduct at previous law enforcement positions in Muskingum County, remains a certified police officer. Kirkersville police Chief James Chapman and Sgt. Derek Abner were fired from previous jobs but remain certified amid residents’ concerns regarding a dramatic increase in enforcement. Springboro Police Chief Jeff Kruithoff, who fired Abner for repeated lies, said there is no process to decertify dishonest police officers or statewide standard for hiring.

Fit to serve?

The mayor of Kirkersville, a small Licking County village just north of Interstate 70, said he never knew Abner and Chapman were fired from their previous jobs.

Abner was fired from the Springboro Police Department on June 6, 2011, after being placed on administrative leave May 27, 2011, for violating department policies, making untruthful statements and having integrity problems, according to Abner’s personnel records from Springboro police.

In a letter firing Abner, Kruithoff wrote: “Your actions to date as a probationary police officer has shown time and time again the inability to tell the unvarnished truth when being questioned.”

Kruithoff said Abner’s unwillingness to tell the truth became evident May 15, 2011, when Abner, while off duty, followed a person he suspected was driving drunk in the city of Franklin.

Abner said the SUV almost struck him, but a Franklin police sergeant saw the opposite, according to Franklin police’s letter to Springboro police.

Kirkersville Mayor Terry Ashcraft and Chapman said they thought Abner was dismissed because of budget concerns. Abner said he was an at-will employee dismissed with little explanation.

Chapman, who hired Abner, was fired from the Mount Sterling Police Department in September 2009 after Columbus police received reports that Chapman had attempted suicide with a gun surrounded by family photos, according to a Mount Sterling Police Department internal investigation.

Chapman said he resigned from Mount Sterling Police Department because of stress and unwillingness to comply with then-Chief Michael McCoy’s riskier drug stings. Chapman said he never saw the internal investigation detailing his dismissal and called it highly inaccurate.

On Sept. 5, 2009, McCoy received a call from Columbus police reporting that Chapman had been transported to the Ohio State University Medical Center after a suicide attempt, according to a Mount Sterling police internal investigation.

“The witness called police to report that (Chapman) had tried to shoot himself and taken a bunch of pills. She then informed that she had taken the gun away from him and put it in another room,” according to a Columbus Division of Police preliminary investigation.

Columbus police officers noted “there were several notes that were typed out in the room saying sorry and not to judge him,” according to the preliminary investigation.

Chapman, who was placed on administrative leave Sept. 6, 2009, told McCoy that “he just took some aspirin and that everyone was blowing it out of proportion,” according to an internal investigation.

McCoy fired Chapman on Sept. 16, 2009, according to the internal investigation.

Background questions

Most agencies complete background checks and speak with former employers, but if a local agency isn’t diligent, officers with histories of misconduct or criminal behavior could end up patrolling the streets.

“That is a subject of a lot of concern among police chiefs,” Kruithoff said.

People who aspire to be officers who complete training must find a job within one year to avoid retaking classes, and that leaves some searching for volunteer positions. At a rate of $9 or $10 per hour, the salary for the part-time Kirkersville sergeant and chief respectively, might not attract more qualified candidates.

In many cases, the top cops want to work for the larger agencies, and smaller jurisdictions are left with the rest, Newark Police Chief Steven Sarver said.

To even get on the list of potential candidates for a Newark police officer position, a person must successfully complete a physical fitness test, civil service exam and police officer certification, Sarver said. A doctor’s approval and negative answers to a list of disqualifying offenses also are required.

Once on the list, Newark police will speak with candidate’s neighbors and significant other — not to mention the candidate’s employers for the past 10 years. And that’s all before the criminal background checks, polygraph test, psychological examination and medical health exam, Sarver said.

“We literally turn somebody upside down,” he said.

The same standards are not applied to smaller agencies, said Sarver, speaking from experience as Amelia’s former police chief for 14 months.

Sarver recalls convincing the mayor that polygraph tests, which Sarver received at a discounted rate of $100 for six candidates, were worth the expense. The first candidate tested had been stealing from his employer, Sarver said.

“We would have never found that out had we not had the polygraph test,” Sarver said.

Soon after Sarver left, he learned the next chief had hired the thieving candidate.

His successor said, “I’m hurting for people right now. I’m sure it’s just a one-time thing,” Sarver recalled.

Sarver said poor background checks are not unique to the law enforcement field, but they have a detrimental affect on performance and public perception.

“It’s very unfortunate that we’re not making more of an effort,” Sarver said.

State policies vary

The 15 Ohio officers decertified in 2011 all were convicted of criminal offenses, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office records.

Among the 50 states, certification and training agencies differ on how they handle revocations. In Indiana, an officer convicted of a felony or two misdemeanors would lose his or her certification, said Janice Hardwick, an administrative assistant with the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

In West Virginia, every time a police officer changes jobs, whether to move closer to family or to avoid a firing, his or her certification is deactivated, said Chuck Sadler, law enforcement training coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Criminal Justice Services.

A subcommittee reviews the deactivated certifications to determine if the officer resigned while being investigated, resigned to avoid investigation or was fired, Sadler said.

A fired officer could retain certification based on the circumstances and judgment of the subcommittee, Sadler said.

“If an officer is arrested, we do need to know and track it,” Sadler said. “We’re going to look at what the grounds are.”

In Pennsylvania, the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission can revoke an officer’s certification if he or she fails to maintain CPR certification, qualify with firearms or complete in-service training.

Being convicted of a crime punishable by at least one year of incarceration, whether a felony or more-serious misdemeanor, also could end in a revocation, according to information provided by E. Beverly Young, an administrative officer with the commission.

Under Pennsylvania law, certification would be revoked after notice is provided and a hearing is completed.

In Michigan, an officer can lose his or her certification for being convicted of a felony offense or making a materially false statement on applications, said David Harvey, executive director of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards.

The commission hopes to introduce legislation that would allow it to revoke certification for officers who agree to a misdemeanor conviction to avoid a felony one, Harvey said.

“That’s what happens quite frequently, then another agency hires them,” Harvey said.

About five years ago, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training launched a National Decertification Index to track officers who lost their certifications, executive director Michael Becar said. Thirty states, including Ohio, provide and review data through the index, he said.

The records, available to state standards and training commissions, do not detail the reasons why officers lost their certifications because guidelines for revocation of certification vary among states, Becar said.

Officials can contact the state that revoked the officer’s license for additional information and make their own determinations, Becar said.

The goal is to prevent bad cops from floating from state to state, Harvey said.

“You don’t want to get somebody else’s problem,” Harvey said.

Jessie Balmert can be reached at (740) 328-8548 or jbalmert@mncogannett.com.

Zanesville Times Recorder