Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, said he suspects that political pressures and ambitions deter California attorneys general from exercising their authority more frequently. University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon suggested state funding might also present a barrier. “I don’t think mirroring the federal statute, section 14141, is likely to be the most successful state reform effort,” Harmon said, referring to the order granted by Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. “It took the federal government a long time to get that train rolling, and I think it’s very unlikely that the resources or expertise exist in most states to engage in a similarly effective effort.”
Another way for state lawmakers to potentially deter misconduct is through the issuance of professional police licenses. Much like certifications for health-care professionals or lawyers, these licenses can be revoked and prevent police from getting law-enforcement jobs in the state again. This is an area where California lags behind. It is one of about five states without such a mechanism to use after a serious offense. As a result, police chiefs in these states can have complete discretion over the hiring and firing of officers. In an interview last month, Roger Goldman, a law professor emeritus at Saint Louis University in Missouri, told me chiefs rarely exercise their authority to let officers go.
That can have wide-ranging implications for public safety. Sometimes employers hire an officer with a record of misconduct because they simply don’t have access to his or her work history. But other times, Goldman said, departments know a prospective hire’s troubled background, but may hire the officer anyway to reduce training expenses.
Goldman argues that all states need a strong licensing system, but that plan faces its own set of challenges. A critical problem is data—or lack thereof. It’s a multilayered issue involving both individual departments and their broader communities. For example, Frontline has reported that black and Latino communities are less likely to report officer misconduct due to fear that they won’t be believed or may face retaliation. Lawyers and police officials may also keep quiet about officer improprieties to reduce their liability.
Without thoroughly reporting and tracking misconduct, the state law-enforcement training and standards boards tasked with overseeing certifications cannot accurately assess which officers should be considered for decertification. Officers can then quietly resign and potentially find another law-enforcement job. This problem is even worse in states like California that have strict laws preventing the public release of records on police misconduct and the outcomes of internal investigations, said Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
Ultimately, state governments have wide-ranging authority to adopt measures for reform. So do cities, though at a more micro level. The key is whether these jurisdictions deem changes necessary on their own, or if they’d only take them under pressure from the federal government.