Problematic law enforcement officers move from one department to another all over the United States. There is no database to track these officers and hold them accountable.
That’s why Big Local News has partnered with newsrooms, independent journalists and press freedom advocacy groups around the country to gather police certification data from all 50 states, with the goal of shedding light on the “wandering officer” phenomenon.
Wandering officers are products of the decentralized American police system and are a rising topic of interest for many involved in advocacy around law enforcement reform. These officers are fired for misconduct and then rehired at a different law enforcement agency, where they potentially engage in the same behavior.
The data-gathering effort, launched at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in 2022, entails collecting police certification, training and employment history records of both officers who are currently employed and those who are not. The data also will include corrections officers, where available.
Since the project’s inception last year, 15 states have refused to provide police certification data, said Invisible Institute FOIA Fellow Sam Stecklow. Reasons for denial include concerns about officer privacy to legal technicalities in state statutes to employees’ technical inabilities to run database queries.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Hearst Newspapers, the Utah Freedom of Information Hotline and the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative have filed appeals in Colorado, New York, Utah and Michigan, respectively.
There is no single agency that collects police certification and decertification records throughout the country. The collaboration aims to retrieve this data from each state agency that regulates officer certification. To make it more useful, the data will be processed, cleaned and standardized for reporters. The data currently exists in various forms, from PDFs to other difficult formats to access, said Big Local News Senior Data Journalist Justin Mayo.
“Our goal is to try to organize the data a little more methodically, and then make it available to a broader group of journalists,” Mayo said.
So far, the project’s contributors have gathered police employment data from 35 states. However, the amount of data gathered from each state varies, Stecklow said.
“It’s kind of a squishy number because there are some states who previously released data, but now they won’t,” said Stecklow, who worked on a similar project that began in 2019.
Having a national set of police certification data would make it easier for reporters to track wandering officers across various law enforcement agencies and state borders. Without it, holding law enforcement to account will continue to be difficult.
If your newsroom or organization is interested in the project, please reach out to [email protected].
About Big Local News
From its base at Stanford University, Big Local News gathers data, builds tools and collaborates with reporters to produce journalism that makes an impact. Its website at biglocalnews.org offers a free archiving service for journalists to store and share data. Learn more by visiting our about page.