Broken system lets problem officers jump from job to job
Broken system lets problem officers jump from job to job
Law enforcement officers accused of sexual misconduct have jumped from job to job — and at times faced fresh allegations that include raping women — because of a tattered network of laws and lax screening that allowed them to stay on the beat.
A yearlong Associated Press investigation into sex abuse by cops, jail guards, deputies and other state law enforcement officials uncovered a broken system for policing bad officers, with significant flaws in how agencies deal with those suspected of sexual misconduct and glaring warning signs that go unreported or get overlooked.
The AP examination found about 1,000 officers in six years who lost their licenses because of sex crimes that included rape, or sexual misconduct ranging from propositioning citizens to consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse. That number fails to reflect the breadth of the problem, however, because it measures only officers who faced an official process called decertification and not all states have such a system or provided records.
In states that do revoke law enforcement licenses, the process can take years, enabling problem officers to find other jobs. And while there is a national index of decertified officers, contributing to it is voluntary and experts say the database, which is not open to the public, is missing thousands of names.
Some officers are permitted to quietly resign and never even face decertification. Others are able to keep working because departments may not be required to report all misdeeds to a state police standards commission, or they neglect to. Agencies also may not check references when hiring, or fail to share past problems with new employers.
In 2010, a woman sued the Grand Junction Police Department in Colorado, insisting the department erred in hiring officer Glenn Coyne and then failed to supervise him. Coyne was fired, and killed himself days after he was arrested on suspicion of raping the woman in September 2009.
That was sexual assault accusation No. 3, court records show.
While Coyne was still with the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, another woman accused him of subjecting her to a strip search and groping her. The complaint came after Grand Junction had completed its background check, and Mesa County officials — who declined comment — did not investigate or inform Coyne's new employer, according to court records.
Grand Junction police were aware of one other complaint against Coyne, however: The agency had put him on probation and cut his pay after a woman accused him of sexual assault in December 2008. The district attorney's office declined to prosecute, but Coyne was still on probation when the third accusation was lodged, working under a new supervisor unaware of why he was punished.
A federal judge considering the civil lawsuit found no deliberate indifference by police in employing Coyne. An appeals court upheld the ruling but noted the 'handling of Officer Coyne could and should have been better.'
Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said a subsequent evaluation of hiring procedures found them to be sound, but added that 'it's safe to say that we're more thorough than ever.' Prospective officers must sign a form allowing the department to review previous personnel records, and it's considered a red flag if employers don't respond.
'If an agency won't speak with us, or seems reticent to supply details, we'll either dig further into other sources or we just won't consider the applicant any further,' Camper said.
Problems at multiple police agencies didn't keep Charles Hoeffer from finding work in Florida, a review of about 1,000 pages of his personnel files found.
Hoeffer has been on paid leave from the Palm Beach Shores Police Department for nearly 20 months while investigators examine a woman's allegations that he twice raped her in 2014. Palm Beach Shores is Hoeffer's third police job, despite complaints dating back more than two decades.
He resigned from his first job with the Delray Beach Police amid a probe into whether he struck his wife with a boot, fracturing her nose, and then lied about it to investigators. Before that investigation was complete, Hoeffer was hired in 1991 by the Riviera Beach Police and left blank a job application question asking if he'd ever been the subject of a police probe. Delray Beach ultimately sustained the accusations against Hoeffer, though no criminal charges were filed, and in 1993 the state police standards agency temporarily suspended Hoeffer's license for assault.
In 1995, Riviera Beach fired Hoeffer after a woman accused him of raping her in a hotel room. An investigation did not lead to any criminal charges, and his termination was reversed by an arbitrator, who found Hoeffer exercised poor judgment by being in the intoxicated woman's room but had not broken department rules. During arbitration, Riviera Beach said Hoeffer had been the subject of several other internal affairs investigations related to women — accusations ranged from harassment to improper touching during an arrest; the charges were never substantiated.
In 2008, Hoeffer moved on to the Palm Beach Shores department. Allegations followed there, too: A woman claimed he made suggestive comments to her during a domestic dispute call, two female dispatchers accused him of sexual harassment, and another woman who went on a date with Hoeffer said he groped her. Once again, no charges. Then came the current rape investigation.
Hoeffer did not return calls from the AP but, under police questioning, he has denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Gary Lippman, said it's not uncommon for officers to have complaints in their files but that no compelling evidence has emerged and the women's claims are rife with contradictions.
Resigning or being fired does not mean an officer loses the ability to work in law enforcement.
Police standards agencies in 44 states can revoke the licenses of problem officers, which should prevent a bad cop from moving on to police work elsewhere. But the process is flawed, said Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied decertification for three decades.
Six states, including New York and California, have no decertification authority over officers who commit misconduct. And in states with decertification powers, virtually every police standards agency relies on local departments to investigate and report misconduct, with reporting requirements varying, Goldman said. About 20 states decertify an officer only after a criminal conviction.
Consider the variations between Pennsylvania and Florida. In Pennsylvania, the state agency responsible for police certification reported just 20 revocations from 2009 through 2014, none for sexrelated crimes or misconduct. Florida decertified 2,125 officers in those six years, some 162 for sex-related misconduct.
The difference: Florida is automatically notified when an officer is arrested and requires local departments to report any time an officer is found to have committed misconduct involving 'moral character.' Pennsylvania relies on law enforcement agencies to report when an officer has committed a crime or misconduct.
Records provided to the AP from 2009 through 2014 did not include any decertification for former Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to extorting sexual favors from five women and is serving up to eight years in prison. Allegations against Skweres dated to 2008, yet he remained on the job until a victim complained to the FBI; he was arrested in 2012.
Another concern is the length of the decertification process.
In Texas, Michael John Nelson was accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old neighbor while working for the Hardeman County Sheriff's Office. The local district attorney told the AP he did not prosecute in exchange for Nelson relinquishing his law enforcement license, an agreement reached with the victim and her family. Yet by the time his decertification was final in 2011 — a year after he left the sheriff's office — Nelson had already worked briefly as a reserve deputy in the town of Bayou Vista.
Nelson said he told his new boss when he learned he was under investigation and turned in his badge once charges were filed.
Paul Odin, who was not familiar with the case but replaced the Bayou Vista police chief who hired Nelson, said that 'a lot of agencies, a lot of cities — to avoid lawsuits — won't disclose anything negative.'
By Nomaan Merchant and Matt Sedensky