Rarely does a new police hire make national headlines. But when Myles Cosgrove got a job at the Carroll County sheriff’s department in northern Kentucky this past April, people had reason to pay attention.
About three years earlier, he and his squad of Louisville police officers had used a battering ram to break into Breonna Taylor’s home during a deadly raid. Investigators later found that Cosgrove was one of three officers who fired their guns. While the Louisville police department ultimately fired Cosgrove for violating use-of-force procedures and not using his body camera, he eluded criminal charges and remains employable as a cop.
That’s because he kept his police certification.
He’s not the only one. Out of 54 officers involved in 14 high-profile killings that spurred Black Lives Matter protests in the last nine years, only 10 had their certifications or licenses revoked as a matter of disciplinary action, according to The Intercept’s analysis of certification documents obtained through public records requests. (Three officers’ disciplinary cases remain pending.) The Intercept’s review begins in 2014 and runs through January of this year. For the first several years of the analysis, none of the officers whose records The Intercept reviewed faced a disciplinary hearing in front of a regulatory board with the power to revoke their license — a bar on being rehired as a cop in most states. That changed after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in 2020. He and three other Minneapolis officers were stripped of their licenses for their involvement in the killing — a turning point in public outrage over police violence, and, perhaps, in formal efforts at accountability.
While experts have described the revocation of police licenses as a “viable remedy” for misconduct, it can be difficult to attain. In many states, a conviction is a prerequisite for decertification, a major obstacle given how rarely even the most notorious cops are criminally prosecuted. And the process varies wildly from state to state. In most cases, local police departments must initiate the process, which is often handled by a state board that oversees police standards and training. The state boards are often stacked with law enforcement administrators, in addition to some civilian appointees. Not all states have a process for decertification, and there is no parallel process for federal law enforcement personnel.
That makes it impossible to conduct a comprehensive national analysis. While limited, The Intercept’s review of licensing records across 11 states demonstrates how underutilized this accountability mechanism is, even though it could go a long way in keeping violent cops off the streets.
“Decertification has to be easier if it’s to work as an independent way to get police reform.”
“Decertification has to be easier if it’s to work as an independent way to get police reform,” said Raff Donelson, an associate professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, drawing a contrast to criminal prosecutions as an accountability mechanism.
“We have one set of rules for figuring out whether to take away your freedom,” he said, and “a different set of rules about whether you should do a job.”
In theory, it should be easier to revoke a cop’s license than to convict a cop of using excessive force, since decertification is a civil process with lower evidentiary standards, Donelson said. In practice, however, decertification is often dependent on a criminal conviction.
Police departments’ discretion over initiating decertification processes is another reason the numbers are low, said Tracie L. Keesee, a former Denver police captain and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. “That goes to tell you about systems, right?” she said. “It’s not just about systems by themselves, but it’s about who’s in the systems that are doing the investigations and that are making the determinations.”
The idea of creating state boards with the power to decertify officers emerged in the wake of abusive police practices during the Black-led rebellions of 1967, with many states passing laws to create such entities by 2001. Today, some state boards have rules that require automatic decertification: for example, if an officer is convicted of a felony. But state regulatory agencies are not required to report when an officer’s license is revoked, making it possible for decertified cops to find jobs elsewhere in the country — or even the same state.
In New York, for example, dozens of officers who were decertified by the state were later rehired by police departments or public safety agencies, according to a 2021 investigation by The Intercept and New York Focus.
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training maintains a decertification database that state boards can theoretically reference when deciding whether to issue a license. But because participation is completely voluntary, it has no teeth.
According to IADLEST, some 209 officers are decertified in the United States each month. That figure represents a range of on- and off-duty misconduct and is a tiny fraction of the nation’s over 900,000 law enforcement agents. Randy Shrewsberry, a former police officer who is the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, said that there should be more decertifications and that the disparate standards are a pressing issue.
“What is the criteria for decertification?” Shrewsberry said. Even if every state doesn’t have a decertification board, “having some understanding of ‘this is what we all agree should be the things for which would decertify an officer’” is what is needed.
In Louisiana, where the laws on decertification are generally weak, automatic decertification is limited to convictions of malfeasance in office or if an officer is stripped of the right to bear arms; it does not apply to most felony or misdemeanor convictions. An investigative series published this past April by the Times-Picayune found that in the last decade, a majority of cops who were convicted of serious crimes like murder and sexual assault kept their certifications.
Louisiana law requires local departments to report officer arrests and convictions based on on-duty incidents, but because there are no penalties for ignoring the mandate, only a slight majority of cases were reported, the investigation found.
Even when a disciplinary case makes it to a licensing board, action is not guaranteed. Arizona’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which both issues and revokes police certifications, took no action in roughly 32 percent of misconduct allegations that could’ve resulted in decertification from 2000 to 2011.
Some officers who lose their jobs due to misconduct are able to be rehired elsewhere. These so-called wandering officers are more likely to be fired at their next job or receive a “moral character violation” than rookies or veterans who have never been fired, according to an academic study published in the Yale Law Journal in 2020 looking at the records of 98,000 officers across almost 500 Florida police departments over 30 years.
And then there’s the fact that many officers facing misconduct allegations preemptively resign to evade a disciplinary record, noted Thor Morrison, who worked for 20 years as an administrator in various agencies related to Kentucky’s police standards and training. It’s “much too easy based on the structure to let people leave than it is to do the right thing and follow through with preferring charges or going through a formal disciplinary process,” he said.
Brett Hankison, another one of the officers who raided Taylor’s apartment, previously worked at the police department in Lexington, Kentucky. When he resigned from that job in 2002, a supervisor said he “would not recommend him for reemployment at any time in the future” due to habitually violating orders, shirking supervision, and having an overall bad attitude. But Hankison kept his license and simply moved on to another job in Louisville.
Just over 17 years later, Hankison was fired for shooting 10 bullets through Taylor’s apartment window and a sliding glass door, which were covered with blinds and a curtain. He was criminally charged but was acquitted in state court and had the charges expunged from his record. While state records show that his certification is currently inactive, there is no disciplinary bar on him seeking a job as a police officer in the future.
Failure to Act
In addition to Taylor, The Intercept reviewed the records of officers involved in the deaths of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee; Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; Floyd in Minneapolis; Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California; Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Jamar Clark in Minneapolis; Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
One of the officers who raided Taylor’s home lost her license through a regulatory process, as did the four cops involved in Floyd’s arrest and death, the officer who fatally shot Wright, and four of the officers who beat up Nichols, fatally injuring him. (One officer, the Texas state trooper who arrested Bland, lost his license not because of a regulatory process, but because he agreed to give it up as part of a perjury case.)
Taken as a whole, the cases illustrate how often it is that officers who engage in excessive, deadly force remain employable in the profession. But the specifics of several of the cases also highlight the deadly consequences of regulatory agencies’ failure to take definitive action against even the officers who are deemed by their own departments unfit to work.
Take Darren Wilson, who killed Brown in August 2014. Three years earlier, Wilson lost his job as a cop in nearby Jennings, Missouri, after the city council disbanded the entire department due to corruption and complaints of racial discrimination by white officers policing the 89 percent Black populace. “Wilson was let go of one police department, and he slithered his way into Ferguson,” Brown’s mother Lezley McSpadden-Head told The Intercept. (Wilson was never indicted for killing Brown, and his police license later expired, according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety.)
Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who shot 12-year-old Rice in November 2014, got a job last year in Tioga, Pennsylvania, a roughly 700-person township. Because Loehmann kept his license in Ohio, subject to the state’s training requirements, he did not have to apply for a new license in Pennsylvania, which accepts police officer transfers from all states. Kelly May, a spokesperson for the Ohio attorney general’s office, wrote in an email in March that Loehmann’s license “was not revoked as he was not convicted of anything that we were made aware of.”
“What they are doing is leaving officers to commit excessive force in the wild, to inflict their danger upon the rest of us.”
Subodh Chandra, a lawyer who represents the Rice family, told The Intercept that either the decertification boards are not seeking information of excessive force cases or they are not interested in it when they receive it. “And that is cause for concern,” he said. “What they are doing is leaving officers to commit excessive force in the wild, to inflict their danger upon the rest of us.”
Michael Slager, who stopped Scott for a broken brake light in 2015 and fatally shot him in the back as he ran away, was subsequently fired by his police department. In South Carolina, cops lose their certification when they leave a job at a police station, whether voluntarily or after being fired. After he was fired for an allegation of misconduct, the state board wrote to him to remind him of this fact — but left the door open for him to reactivate his license. In a cordially worded letter, obtained by The Intercept, the board wrote, “[S]ince allegations of misconduct have been made against you, once you find employment with another law enforcement agency you must undergo a contested case hearing to determine if you can be reissued law enforcement certification.”
More than two years after receiving that warning, Slager pleaded guilty to depriving Scott of his rights and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Under South Carolina law, the conviction disqualifies him from working as a police officer.
The last few years have seen some progress on the use of decertification as an accountability mechanism.
Back in 2016, over 25 percent of the nation’s officers worked in six states that didn’t have bodies with decertification powers, according to the late Saint Louis University law professor emeritus Roger L. Goldman. Prompted by the 2020 uprisings, three of those states — California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — created processes for decertification in the last two and a half years.
Meanwhile, in the cases reviewed by The Intercept, none of the 27 officers involved in 10 pre-2020 killings lost their licenses through a disciplinary process. Another 27 officers were involved in the four killings that took place since 2020. Ten of them were decertified, 10 retained their licenses, and no information was released about the final seven. The number of decertifications could increase, as disciplinary cases are still pending for three of the Memphis police officers involved in Nichols’s death. (Of the 10 officers who were decertified, four are white, four are Black, and two are Asian.)
Some experts like Donelson say that more can be done. “One can imagine being really creative about how we create the enforcement mechanisms,” Donelson said. One way could be to harness “qui tam” actions — a provision of anti-fraud law that allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the U.S. government to spur the government to take up a case — to initiate more license revocation processes.
Another idea, included in President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing’s final report in 2015, is for the Department of Justice to partner with IADLEST and expand its database of officers who’ve had their licenses revoked for misconduct with standardized reporting requirements so that those officers cannot easily be hired elsewhere.
Others, meanwhile, say the entire decertification process should be taken out of the hands of police.
“I would definitely like to see more accountability taken when it comes to these situations like my son’s,” said McSpadden-Head. That means electing ordinary people to positions with decertification powers rather than “the police policing the police.”
This story was supported by a 2023 Charles M. Rappleye Investigative Journalism Award from the LA Press Club.