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Alabama passes law to track officers accused of misconduct

Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 7:10 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - It’s been one year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. His death prompted a national call for police reform.

In May, WBRC launched an On Your Side investigative series examining changes in local policing prompted by Floyd’s death. In the second installment, we break down state and federal efforts to expose officers with a history of misconduct.

Officers who are disciplined or even terminated for misconduct can operate under the radar. After they leave one department, there’s no way to track whether they stay in law enforcement or if they apply for another job.

“It’s a big problem in law enforcement”, explained Chief Alan Benefield. “It is and has been forever that you have problem officers fired or resigned that nobody knows, they go to another job and they’re employed by another department and there’s no background information on them.”

Now, there’s a national effort underway to put a stop to it. Alabama is the latest state to pass a law to create a police database to track the bad actors, keep them out of local agencies and policing your neighborhoods.

In a time where police retention and recruitment are at an historic low, hiring experienced officers is the fast way to bolster a police force. But it’s also a house of mirrors. It takes a court order to secure an officer’s personnel records. That’s because agencies can be sued for providing that information, even if it saved a department from hiring an officer with bad record.

“If you run a background check on an individual and call a former employer, the only thing that you will really learn from them about their work history is whether or not they’re eligible for re-employment – and that’s the problem”, added Benefield. “That’s what everybody was running into.”

A key provision of the law provides immunity to former employers who share personnel files in good faith.

“For the purposes of a background investigation on potential employees for law enforcement positions, this requires that former employer to provide that information and gives them some civil protection for doing so”, he said.

Benefield serves as the Executive Secretary for the Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, or APOSTC. His agency will create and operate Alabama’s new police database. Benefield’s spent more than 50 years in law enforcement and knows how officers buck the system – and now how to stop it.

“A lot of times [officers leave] in the midst of an investigation or there’s an agreement that they will resign and leave the department and lieu of been fired”, Benefield said of the wandering officers. “Well this law requires those kind of individuals to be entered into the database regardless.”

The database will include proven instances of excessive force and any formal reprimands, suspensions, reassignments, and terminations that occur as a result. Disciplinary actions must be entered into the database within 30 days. Use-of-force complaints must be added within 30 days of a completed investigation. That agency must report the substance of the complaint, the law enforcement officer involved, the date of the complaint and the outcome.

“The commission has a tool built into the bill that requires it to conduct random audits and it can actually assess a penalty of $1,000 plus $100 a day for any agency that fails to comply.”

The law also expands the state’s pre-employment screening to include a national criminal background check along with reviewing a candidate’s work history, social media accounts, credit history, reportable offenses and disciplinary records from high school and college. This measure applies to potential hires and officers who are already certified.

“Law enforcement is no different than any other profession, you have issues with personnel”, Benefield said. “Whether they be a medical professional or even journalists, all professions have problems. That doesn’t make them all bad, it doesn’t even make the majority bad. But that profession has to deal with those issues and weed them out and keep them out.”

There’s one major snag with the new law, while the legislature passed the bill they did not secure funding. It will take millions to create the database and around $80,000 in annual maintenance.

“If they have a special session, there’ll be an opportunity for the legislature to come back and adequately fund it”, Benefield added.

Establishing a national policing database is the final piece to stop wandering officers from moving state to state. It’s part of ongoing negotiations in Congress as lawmakers work to pass sweeping police reform, which failed in 2020.

Experts say any national database created by Congress must require departments to participate. While it’s widely unknown, there’s a National Decertification Index, or NDI, that serves as a national registry for officers who are decertified. Around 30,000 officers are listed by 45 agencies who enter the information at-will.

Alabama’s database will go into effect October 1, 2023. You can read the law by clicking here.

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