Second Chances for Dangerous Police Officers are Not Worth the Risks

By , Editorial Content Strategist

Before murdering George Floyd, Derek Chauvin had already been involved in at least 18 misconduct cases. The officer who killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose, and the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, had both been dismissed from previous policing jobs. Most recently, Myles Cosgrove—one of the officers fired after he killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid—was hired as a sheriff’s deputy by another agency in a county an hour north.  

Breonna Taylor—like countless other, disproportionately Black victims of police violence—will not get another chance at life. But in the latest, high-profile example of fired police officers returning to law enforcement, Officer Cosgrove has been given another chance to kill.

It’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be investigated for misconduct, held liable, or get fired for any reason. Even when officers are fired from one police department, they can easily return to the job at another, sometimes in higher-ranked positions. And without any real incentives to change their behavior, many don’t.

In what is possibly the largest quantitative study of police misconduct to date, Yale researchers found that Florida officers who were fired from one agency and then hired by another were twice as likely as their peers to get fired (again), and were also more likely to receive “moral character violations,” both in general and for physical and sexual misconduct. Researchers have also found that fired officers tend to get hired again by agencies within the same state, and these agencies are more likely to have fewer resources, larger communities of color, and reputations for excessive violence

Investigations into the risks of hiring problem officers are limited by the myriad of issues that plague policing data, but the existing evidence is clear—hiring fired police officers makes communities less safe.

Still, even police chiefs who try to keep officers they’ve fired from returning to their own agencies are often forced to reinstate them, sometimes with back pay

Fired officers often regain their previous jobs after winning arbitration appeals required by police union contracts. This is because arbitrators—unelected third-parties, often with a legal background—are required to render decisions according to procedural requirements stipulated in police union contracts, and on the basis of past precedent. In practice, this usually means that officers can’t be fired for violent, racist, or otherwise unethical behavior so long as another officer has committed a similar offense in the past without getting fired. 

Analysis of data from the nation's 37 largest police departments found they had been forced to reinstate 451 out of 1,881 officers fired for misconduct. Most of these officers regained their jobs when police chiefs were overruled by arbitrators, even when the underlying misconduct—including lying, sexual abuse, and killing unarmed people—was undisputed. Other analyses have found that arbitrators overturned disciplinary decisions against police officers more than half of the time, often deciding that disciplinary actions were “excessive” compared to past precedent, and citing procedural flaws in departments’ misconduct investigations.

The full scope of this revolving door is obscured by a widespread culture of silence in law enforcement, and the lack of any national database on police misconduct, firings, or dismissals. In fact, many state laws keep police disciplinary records sealed, and police unions typically help officers quietly resign during misconduct investigations, rather than risk getting fired. There is a national registry of officers who states have decertified, or deemed ineligible to serve—but decertification standards and processes are deeply flawed nationwide; the registry itself is severely limited; and many agencies don’t even know it exists

This means some police chiefs unknowingly hire officers who have already been identified as threats to public safety. But as demonstrated by another agency’s recent hiring of Officer Cosgrove, others are willing to hire officers widely known to have been previously fired after taking a life.

The pattern of second chances awarded to police officers, even after killing people, is not lost on the Black and Brown communities it disproportionately affects. When agencies are willing, able, or even forced to rehire officers with histories of egregious misconduct, it sends a message that policing may still be more about maintaining racial hierarchies than protecting public safety. 

As armed agents of the state with a legal monopoly on violence, police officers must be held to a standard at least as high as the stakes of their job. In order to do that, not only must law enforcement agencies build reliable databases on police behavior; policymakers must also require that officers who get fired, stay fired.