New Study Suggests Previously Fired Cops Continue Bad Behavior When Hired At New Police Departments

A newly published study in the Yale Law Journal found that law enforcement officers who are fired, and get rehired, are more likely to receive "moral character violations" for physical, sexual and other misconduct.

The study, which its authors call "the first systematic investigation of wandering officers and possibly the largest quantitative study of police misconduct of any kind," looked at 98,000 full-time law enforcement officers working in 500 unique agencies in Florida over a 30-year period.

The data showed that in any given year, roughly 1,100 Floridians were working as full-time law enforcement officers after being fired from another state law enforcement agency. These people represent about three percent of the state's full-time law enforcement officers.

One of the study's authors, Ben Grunwald, told The Washington Post that these "wandering officers" are typically re-hired by another law enforcement agency within three years. These agencies tend to be smaller, have fewer resources and oversee populations with larger communities of color.

Grunwald thinks agencies may re-hire wandering officers without doing thorough background checks, without having a large applicant pool to choose from or without knowing that wandering officers have an increased likelihood of misconduct.

Some law enforcement agencies may not worry about potential misconduct either since agencies are "highly immunized from legal liability" thanks to protections like qualified immunity.

"As we've seen in the past few weeks, there can be a band-of-brothers ethos among police officers, where they feel that they are duty-bound to unconditionally support each other," Grunwald told the publication.

Police officer
Law enforcement officers secure the area where they allegedly arrested terror suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami following a shootout in Linden, New Jersey, on September 19, 2016. Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty

One of the authors, John Rappaport, added that the increased populations of color overseen by these smaller, less-well-funded agencies is statistically significant but "substantively small." That is, wandering officers aren't suddenly being given power over predominantly non-white communities. They're just being re-hired in communities with slightly larger non-white populations.

Some state agencies lack databases about fired officers, leaving them clueless about which officers have been fired and for what reasons.

While the Democratic police reform bill recently filed in the U.S. Congress seeks to provide a better national database with this sort of information, some agencies have a habit of simply re-hiring the very officers they fire; though the study didn't look at these sorts of officers.

Connecticut prohibits law-enforcement agencies from hiring officers who have previously been fired, something the study's authors call a "nuclear option."

The authors also say that strong collective bargaining agreements negotiated by police unions often use labor arbitrators, rather than non-union outsiders, to hear cases about officer misconduct. These arbitrators "often rule in favor of officers and order them to be reinstated," Rappaport said.