When Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay thinks about the kinds of men and women he’d like to see working for him one day, he doesn’t envision classes filled with cadets who have spotless pasts.
He hopes to see candidates who know what it’s like to deal with hard times.
“I want people who have had adversity in their life and maybe had a bumpy road,” Ramsay said. “They have more life experience. They can relate to someone better than maybe people that have never struggled with how they’re going to pay for their next meal or their next rent payment.
“I would like to hire more people that have struggled in life and understand those hardships.”
That could include recruits who have crimes in their past, he said.
Neither the Wichita Police Department nor the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office currently accepts job applications from anyone with criminal convictions, including minor cases such as shoplifting.
A driving force behind the policies is preventing credibility issues from arising should that officer be called to testify in court.
Various court cases have ruled that prosecutors have to disclose to defense attorneys any information that would challenge the credibility of the state’s witnesses. That has led to the creation by authorities of what’s called the Brady/Giglio list, which often includes – but is not exclusive to – law enforcement personnel.
What a 30-year-old police officer did when he was 13, should that count against him? In my opinion, absolutely not
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay
Any law enforcement officer with credibility issues is not allowed to provide an affidavit used as a basis to bring criminal charges, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said.
Being on the Brady/Giglio list “doesn’t mean they can’t testify,” Bennett said last week. “It doesn’t mean they can’t do the job.”
But it does mean, he said, that inclusion on the list “has to be disclosed.”
When it comes to an officer’s credibility becoming an issue in court because of a past indiscretion, “I can sit here and brainstorm a half-dozen scenarios where it would be immaterial,” Bennett said. “And on some cases, it’d be really, really important – if, say, they claim the evidence was planted.”
Attorneys praise proposal
Local defense attorneys praised Ramsay’s intent.
“It’s encouraging to see the top brass of the Wichita Police Department recognize that people deserve second chances,” said Dan Monnat, of Monnat & Spurrier. “Each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.”
Charlie O’Hara, of O’Hara and O’Hara, called it “an interesting concept.”
“I think there’s some real value to having people who have been through some hard times” working for a law enforcement agency, he said. Otherwise, you could end up with officers who “have never done anything in their lives, and it’s a little hard to relate to people.”
O’Hara and Monnat both said having the different standards for recruit eligibility could lead to more credibility challenges in court cases, depending on the circumstances of the cases.
“We can’t overlook the fact that every person on trial is entitled to know about that witness’ past that sheds light on his or her present credibility,” Monnat said. “I don’t think it’s anything new. We ask the jury to do that now with every witness.
“The truth is, we don’t have a lily white law enforcement now,” he said. “They do things that create doubts about their credibility. They might begin now with things in their past that cast doubt on their credibility. Whether it means no one believes them, that’s for the jury to decide – as always.”
There’s a lot of public misunderstanding about the Brady/Giglio laws, O’Hara said. The relevance of an officer’s criminal history “depends on the crime,” he said.
“If it’s a crime of dishonesty, it goes to the credibility of the witness.
“If the crime is they smoked marijuana when they were 19, I don’t know how that related to whether they’re telling the truth when they’re 35.”
Desire for change
Wichita isn’t the only police department in the country considering changes in the eligibility requirements for potential law enforcement cadets.
“It’s a question that a lot of law enforcement agencies and a lot of states are wrestling with, honestly,” Bennett said. “You have departments that want to diversify racially and ethnically.”
When he was at a symposium earlier this year sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bennett said, he heard people talk about “a lot of guys who got in trouble and straightened themselves out and they’d be great cops,” but criminal offenses when they were young have derailed those aspirations.
He has heard similar accounts in the Hispanic community, Bennett said.
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office won’t accept any candidates who have a crime of “deceit, untruthfulness or dishonesty” in their past, even if it’s shoplifting or misdemeanor theft, Lt. Lin Dehning said in an e-mail response to questions.
Such crimes are a “permanent disqualifier,” he said.
A DUI only disqualifies a candidate if it’s within the past two years or if multiple DUIs have occurred within the past five years, he said.
Whether a disorderly conduct charge or a school suspension for fighting would disqualify a candidate “depends on the circumstances,” Dehning said.
Ramsay, the Wichita chief, wants to find a way to accept at least some candidates who are being turned away today.
“What a 30-year-old police officer did when he was 13, should that count against him?” Ramsay asked. “In my opinion, absolutely not.
“All kids make mistakes and do things wrong and sometimes it boils down to who got caught and who didn’t.”