Depending on the state you live in, you may be required to obtain an occupational license to become a plumber, an insurance agent, a hair braider, a manicurist, or even a racetrack employee. These licenses, which can take dozens or hundreds of hours of training to procure, afford privileged access to specific industries—and they can be revoked if certain standards aren’t met. But in six states, the same standard isn’t applied to one surprising profession: law enforcement.
Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, and Hawaii employ 26 percent of this country’s law enforcement officers, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But they have no legal authority to revoke the licenses of cops who have been dismissed for misconduct. And even though the other 44 states can decertify police officers, there is no nationwide mechanism allowing every police department in the country to access an applicant’s work history with out-of-state departments. This information gap allows officers banned from working as police in one state to secure law enforcement employment in another state.
Police representatives would have you believe that “gypsy cops,” as such officers are sometimes referred to, represent an overstated and barely existent threat at best. In March 2016, Ray McGrath, the legislative director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO)—one of the U.S.’s most prominent police unions—told members of the Massachusetts legislature, “It’s not possible for an officer [fired for misconduct] to get another job in civil service,”according to a state House reporter for Boston University.
But bad cops can and do find work in law enforcement. Decertified police have repeatedly slipped through the cracks to find new jobs in the profession, often by moving to another state and applying to a department lacking the resources or manpower to do a thorough background check.
Although some efforts to track police decertifications exist, they are scattered and fragmented, varying from state to state, with no unified national coordination. That’s why police reform advocates have been pushing for the creation of a single, federally maintained database for more than 20 years.