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Report: Police Officers Convicted Of Criminal Offenses Still On The Job In California

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A new report from more than 30 news organizations finds hundreds of police officers and deputies convicted of crimes are still on the job in California, including several in San Diego.

Speaker 1: 00:00 More than 80 law enforcement officers working today in California are convicted criminals with rap sheets that include everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter. That's the headline from a new report about criminally convicted police still working in California. Their report is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between more than 30 newsrooms, including voice of San Diego, voice of San Diego reporter Jesse Marks joins us now. Jesse, welcome. Hey, thanks for having me. So can you start off by telling us about the list of criminally charged officers? It was released by accident a and that presented both insight and challenges early on, right?

Speaker 2: 00:38 So this project started when two reporters asked to state agency that oversees standards and trainings of police officers for a list of anyone who had been flagged as disqualified from serving in the profession because they had a conviction and what they got instead was a list of 12,000 names, but it didn't have really any information attached to it. So they tapped a media organizations across the state and they said, Hey, go to the courthouses, help us figure out who these folks are. Help us verify that these are actually police officers and let's look for any trends and figure out what the charges were. So we ultimately narrowed down the list from about 12,000 to 630 people who we could verify had worked in law enforcement either before, during, or after their criminal convictions. And then we started looking for certain trends. And so what we found was that there were a lot of DUIs and driving offenses, but the second most common offense was domestic violence. It was very prevalent among the law enforcement ranks.

Speaker 1: 01:27 Hmm. So, you know, like you said, ultimately the reporter's identified 630 current or former officers, uh, with criminal convictions in the past decade in California. Some of those officers are or have been employed locally. Can you tell us about some of those cases?

Speaker 2: 01:42 Yeah. So what we found was that at least six officers are still employed in San Diego County, at least one in Imperial County. And again, domestic violence was a fairly common, uh, offense that we found on that list among the officers who are, who are still working. And, um, we realized very quickly while going through the court files and from talking to attorneys and even some of the, the officers themselves was that they were pleading down to charges that allowed them to keep their jobs. So if you're convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, you usually lose your, your job as a police officer in the state of California. But oftentimes these guys were pleading down to what were property damage crimes because the domestic violence cases had ultimately fallen apart.

Speaker 1: 02:22 That's interesting that they were allowed to just plead down because you know, in California, convicted felons can't be law enforcement officers. You know, how does California compare to other States when it comes to dealing with officers with criminal records?

Speaker 2: 02:35 So what we found out is that the state of California is only one of five in the United States. That doesn't automatically de-certify police officers. It doesn't strip them of their badge if they've been convicted of certain types of misconduct or even lesser misdemeanors. So like for instance, a States like Georgia, a States like Florida, they have rules on the books in which they can take your badge away if you've been, um, if, if you've committed perjury for instance, or, uh, I remember Kansas actually will strip you of your badge if you've been found to have used racially biased policing. It's questionable whether or not that's actually being enforced. But in any case, the standards here are not the same in California. And that means that local local police chiefs and sheriffs are essentially responsible for figuring out who to fire and who to keep on the job.

Speaker 2: 03:23 And um, it sounds like there's going to be a larger conversation about this in the legislature and the police unions across the state have signaled to us in the course of reporting this story that they're prepared for that discussion. They're prepared for the legislature to come back and, and potentially say we should look more closely at the state taking a bigger role in the certification of police officers. Talk to me more about that. I know you mentioned it, you know, is there any support in the legislature for changing laws regarding the employment of officers who have been convicted of serious offenses, even if they're not felonies? I imagine there will be support for that. Over the last couple of years there there's been quite a few criminal justice reforms. I could see somebody like Shirley Weber potentially assemblywoman, Shirley Weber picking up something like that, although I don't know for sure whether she would in any case the police unions are preparing themselves for that possibility and what they've already told us.

Speaker 2: 04:11 Actually the head of the state's largest police union is an officer here in San Diego. And what he told our reporting partners in the Bay was that, uh, he's not immediately opposed to that, but he wants to be a part of that conversation and he wants to make sure that the appeal process is still in place for officers so that we can properly balance their due process rights. What is the San Diego police department done to flag potential misconduct? So there was a rash of police officers who got arrested in 2011 and then in 2014 there were these two waves and the police department wound up filing charges against uh, many of its own officers. Uh, fairly scandalous, exploded into the headlines. It was very embarrassing for them. And what they did was they tapped an outside research firm to come in and identify any structural problems that they might've had.

Speaker 2: 04:56 And one of the things that the outside researchers flagged was that, uh, sergeants weren't keeping a closer eye on their, their subordinates. So since then SDPD has implemented a system in which they will monitor and track. It's a computer system. Any officers who have a substantial number of complaints or civil litigation racked up against them and then it, and then it alerts the supervisors so that they can take a closer look at that person. They've also implemented a mental health programs and wellbeing programs for their, for their officers. So that if somebody is involved in a traumatic experience or if somebody even has a death in the family, there are people within the police department who make a point to go reach out to them to go see that they're okay. And this is all a way of monitoring them so that any potential misconduct or or suspicious behavior doesn't actually manifest itself into criminal behavior.

Speaker 2: 05:44 And then finally, what they also did was they, they reinstated the professional standards unit, which is a, a part of SDPD but it works somewhat independently of the system and it accepts complaints or tips about suspicious behavior or criminal behavior from other officers and then investigates it separately from the internal affairs side of things. So it's supposed to be this specialized unit within SDPD that that monitors it's own. And it was actually instrumental this summer in bringing charges against a, a Sergeant who was accused of, um, soliciting a minor online. I'm curious to know, has the relationship you and your colleagues, uh, have with local law enforcement changed since this story came out? And if so, how? I actually think that, uh, STB SDPD was fairly helpful in, in reporting this. Um, initially they were resistant. They declined my request to talk to the police chief, but I did sit down with their spokespeople to talk about this and, and their position was, look, people make mistakes and we understand why you're interested in this information.

Speaker 2: 06:46 Uh, from our perspective, uh, California has very secretive laws when it comes from it's w when it comes to its police personnel and its records and what the public can see. And they said, we understand where you're coming from, we understand why you're doing this project, just let us give you our perspective on it. And we totally heard them out. And I think, I think it was fair on both sides. And the position from SDPD was essentially, look, people make mistakes and local jurisdictions deserve some flexibility and being able to decide who's worthy and unworthy of continuing to, to carry a gun and wear a badge. So any strengthening of these rules at the statewide level would just take away our local control. I had been speaking with Jesse Marks with voice of San Diego. Jesse, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 3: 07:31 Uh.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.