Little known by the public they are supposed to protect, there is a group of police officers who have been fired by one police agency, sometimes for serious misconduct, who then find work at another agency. Surprisingly, it is a common practice.
A study of Florida police officers study found that from 1988 to 2016, an average of roughly 1,100 full-time law-enforcement officers who had previously been fired, and just under 800 officers who had been fired for misconduct, were employed by new agencies in any given year. The Wandering Police Officer, 129 Yale Law Journal, 1676, 1716 (2020). “Although we cannot determine the precise reasons for the firings, these results suggest that wandering officers may pose serious risks, particularly given how difficult it is to fire a police officer,” the study concluded.
In Wisconsin, nearly 200 law enforcement officers currently employed in the state were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, resigned in lieu of termination or quit before completion of an internal investigation, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice obtained through an open records request. Nearly 200 Wisconsin officers back on the job after being fired or forced out (The Badger Project Aug. 21, 2021), https://thebadgerproject.org/2021/08/21/nearly-200-wisconsin-officers-back-on-the-job-after-being-fired-or-forced-out/ One officer was accused by a supervisor of snoozing in his squad car while on duty. Another had multiple drunken run-ins with police, including after bar fights. A third repeatedly sent lewd photos to a female officer. All of them were fired or forced out.
And all of them are back working in law enforcement in Wisconsin.
Patrick Solar, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a former police chief, takes a hardline stance on the idea of hiring an officer who had been fired for cause. “I do not feel an officer who has violated their oath should get a second chance,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t care how shorthanded an agency is or any other potential justification. Law enforcement is not a job just anyone can do.” At least 12 current officers in western Wisconsin were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement (La Crosse Tribune (Feb. 21, 2022), https://lacrossetribune.com/news/local/at-least-12-current-officers-in-western-wisconsin-were-fired-or-forced-out-from-previous/article_5701ee1a-f1e5-586d-9ac1-ed9e60caa1d8.html
The Wisconsin legislature sees the wandering police officer as a problem. That is why the legislature now requires law enforcement agencies to maintain a work history file for each employee and creates a procedure for law enforcement agencies, jails, and juvenile detention facilities to receive and review an officer candidate’s file from previous employers. 2021 WISCONSIN ACT 82, https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2021/related/acts/82, Employment Records for Law Enforcement Officers 2021 Wisconsin Act 82, 2021 Assembly Bill 190, https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2021/related/lcactmemo/act082.pdf It “provides a much-needed mechanism to keep bad actors in policing from moving to new agencies after being terminated for unlawful or unethical behavior,” said Meghan Stroshine, an associate professor of criminology and law studies at Marquette University who studies law enforcement. Legislature quietly and unanimously enact legislation intended to improve policing hiring transparency, reduce bad apples. Legislature quietly and unanimously enact legislation intended to improve policing hiring transparency, reduce bad apples, Badger Project Feb. 16, 2022, https://thebadgerproject.org/2022/02/16/legislature-quietly-and-unanimously-enact-legislation-intended-to-improve-policing-hiring-transparency-reduce-bad-apples/