What are 'wandering officers'? Experts break down troubling policing pattern

In the first study of its kind, scholars find these police officers pose risks to the communities they serve, but information about them is not easy to come by.
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On a snowy afternoon in November 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice spent his final moments throwing snowballs and playing with a toy gun at a park in Cleveland.

A man called the police and said Rice was scaring people with a gun that was "probably fake," but according to audio from the Cleveland police dispatch radio, his description of the gun was never relayed to responding officers.

Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he died. Family photo

Minutes later, surveillance footage from a nearby recreation center shows a squad car pulling into the park where Rice was standing. Only two seconds after arriving at the scene, then-officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shot the boy.

A grand jury reviewed the incident in 2015, but Loehmann was never charged and kept his job at the department.

This was not the first time Loehmann had caused concern for his supervisors. He had been allowed to resign from duty at another department about 12 miles from Cleveland after the deputy chief said that he exhibited a “dangerous loss of composure” while training with firearms. In an internal 2012 police memorandum, the deputy chief wrote, “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct (his) deficiencies.”

The deputy chief also said the information about Loehmann would be forwarded for the mayor's review.

In May 2017, the Cleveland police chief announced Loehmann had been fired for his failure to accurately disclose these details about his employment history on his application to the department. However, another department about three hours from Cleveland hired him as a part-time officer in 2018, though he ultimately withdrew his application after facing public backlash.

Loehmann is a prime example of what scholars Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport call a “wandering officer,” which they broadly define as a police officer who was fired or who resigned while under investigation, only to later be rehired by another agency.

In an article published this past April, Grunwald and Rappaport found that wandering officers are not just an anomaly — they are relatively common. The pair examined the employment records of 98,000 full-time officers in Florida, where Rappaport discovered a dataset available through public records disclosure. In any given year between 1988 and 2016, they said wandering officers made up around 2%-3% of Florida’s law enforcement. This frequency is cause for concern, as the study also revealed these officers are about twice as likely to be fired and to receive misconduct complaints in their new roles compared to other officers (including rookies).

Difficulties with police discipline

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, questions over police misconduct and patterns of poor behavior have sparked mass protests across the U.S. Derek Chauvin, the white officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and 15 seconds, had already incurred 17 complaints while working as an officer within the Minneapolis Police Department. Fifteen complaints were closed with no discipline and two resulted in letters of reprimand, according to an employee complaint profile card released by the department.

Chauvin was fired and has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. In a memorandum filed Aug. 28, Chauvin's attorney asked the Hennepin County District Court judge to dismiss these charges due to lack of probable cause.

Nobody wants a bad cop out of the profession more than a good one.

Jim Palmer, executive director of Wisconsin Professional Police Association

Retired professor of criminal justice Samuel Walker said it has become difficult to discipline or fire police officers because people have paid little attention to police unions. These unions negotiate contracts called collective bargaining agreements with local departments that cover standard protections like wages and benefits, but they can also include significant provisions about discipline.

“You got all these provisions that are now solidly in the contracts, and getting them out is a huge mountain to climb,” Walker said. “I just don't think people understand how long a battle this is going to be.”

Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted some of the common disciplinary provisions that appear within collective bargaining agreements in a paper she co-authored in 2016. She said these contracts can prevent the public from accessing any records about police misconduct, slow down ongoing disciplinary investigations and even allow complaints and disciplinary records to be destroyed after a certain period of time.

People protested outside of One Police Plaza on June 8 in New York City. More than 500 former and current mayor's office staff joined with city agency staff to demand policy reforms for the New York Police Department amid the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequality.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

Fisk said unions know their members are susceptible to engaging in misconduct, so they have created a system they know will protect them.

“They designed the protections that they know would protect any other person who commits a murder,” Fisk told TODAY.

But Jim Palmer, executive director of a union called the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the purpose of disciplinary provisions in collective bargaining agreements is not to shield officers who engage in misconduct. Instead, he said they serve the interests of both the employers and officers by outlining the due process and clear procedural rules by which discipline will be investigated and implemented.

“People read stories, see narratives represented in the media — particularly the national media — about bad actors, whether it's a police officer or a police union in one part of the country, and they tend to paint police unions generally with a very broad brush,” Palmer said. "Nobody wants a bad cop out of the profession more than a good one. It serves no institutional interest on our part to somehow have officers or individuals stay in a profession when they perhaps ought not to.”

Accessing data is 'simply not possible'

Even if officers are disciplined or fired, it is not necessarily enough to end their policing careers, as Grunwald and Rappaport found that around 1,100 wandering officers were actively working each year in Florida.

They also said they believe this is a low estimate, in part because their dataset likely does not capture every record of wandering officers present within the state.

Large-scale data about police misconduct is not readily available. There is no federal database that mandates the routine collection or release of data about police misconduct, so Grunwald and Rappaport wrote that it is currently impossible to study how pervasive wandering officers are in the U.S. as a whole. Some existing databases encourage agencies to submit information voluntarily, but Rappaport said the organizations behind them have no authority to require states to submit data.

For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began collecting data for their voluntary misconduct database called the National Use-of-Force Data Collection in January 2019, but according to a federal release, only about 40% of police departments had submitted any information as of March 2020.

Even though data collection poses significant challenges, criminologist and former New Hampshire police officer Philip Stinson has spent more than 15 years building his own national database. He works with a team of research assistants to collect the criminal arrest cases of sworn nonfederal officers, and the public can currently access the database for free information on nearly 12,000 cases from 2005-2015.

Stinson said police crime is more widespread than people might realize. He adds more than 1,000 arrests to his database every year, and he said the actual number of cases is likely even higher. Stinson relies on media coverage to find new cases, and he said this is largely because police departments do not disclose much information — if any — about misconduct. In essence, if concerned citizens were to try and access employment or disciplinary records at their local departments, Stinson said they would likely be turned away.

“I know full well if I were to survey police departments across the country, they would not be forthcoming with the information that I'm gathering through other methods now,” Stinson told TODAY. “In most places, it's simply not possible to get those kinds of records and that kind of information.”

Troublesome officers are finding new work

Wandering officers often surface as repeat offenders within Stinson’s work. He said he’s seen officers with charges get hired at other agencies, only to reappear in his database years later.

“Initially I thought no matter what happened to the criminal case, if you were even charged, you're done,” Stinson said. “But we see some bizarre results where officers are still working.”

It is difficult to know exactly why wandering officers are getting rehired, but Grunwald and Rappaport said many agencies might not be aware of the circumstances. They found that wandering officers tend to move to smaller agencies with fewer resources, and these departments do not always carry out thorough background checks.

As a result, some officers can successfully lie about their employment histories, just like Timothy Loehmann did on his application to the police department in Cleveland.

In some cases, however, a police union’s collective bargaining agreement could ensure that wandering officers’ records are wiped clean — even if they engaged in serious misconduct.

Stinson said that while he was working as a police officer in New Hampshire, the collective bargaining agreement for his department allowed discipline records in officers’ personnel files to be removed after periods of good behavior.

“Sometimes the records of bad cops, in terms of the internal records, literally disappear,” he said.

In that sense, it is not difficult to see how troublesome officers could manage to wander from one department to another.

Wandering officers are complex byproducts of the existing police systems in the U.S., and Grunwald and Rappaport found that they pose clear risks to the communities they serve. Grunwald said these officers will not be easy to eradicate since it is not entirely clear why they are being hired, but he believes it warrants further study.

“It's definitely not just a couple one-off stories that we see in the papers,” Grunwald said. “This is a problem. We need to learn more about it.”