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Kansas cracks down on misbehaving cops

KS-CPOST director Gary Steed at his office on near 21st and Amidon. Steed, a former Sedgwick County sheriff, has in the past four years overseen a dramatic increase in holding officers accountable for misbehavior as director of the KS-CPOST: More than four times as many officers are losing their licenses every year. (Dec. 22, 2016)
KS-CPOST director Gary Steed at his office on near 21st and Amidon. Steed, a former Sedgwick County sheriff, has in the past four years overseen a dramatic increase in holding officers accountable for misbehavior as director of the KS-CPOST: More than four times as many officers are losing their licenses every year. (Dec. 22, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

The number of law enforcement officers in Kansas whose licenses are revoked each year has more than quadrupled since 2011, the result of a little-known agency that is empowered to crack down on misbehavior.

The Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, an independent agency often referred to as the Kansas CPOST, has increased the number of actions it takes from about eight a year to about 35 a year.

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Problems include law enforcement officers who assaulted ex-wives, took advantage of children, showed up to work drunk, lied about internal investigations, committed road rage violence, stole confiscated money or were convicted of homicide and arson.

In one case, an officer issued a traffic ticket but then took it back after the offender contacted his wife about an affair the officer was having. In another case, a sheriff was convicted of distributing methamphetamine within 1,000 feet of a school.

The vast majority of officers currently employed by an agency in Kansas – more than 99.5 percent – do not face any action from CPOST in a given year.

We are contributing to the professionalism of law enforcement by maintaining a standard.

Gary Steed, director of CPOST

“To me it’s a happy story, a story of professionalism,” said Gary Steed, the CPOST director. “We are contributing to the professionalism of law enforcement by maintaining a standard.”

WHAT CHANGED

Last year, the agency took action against one in about every 200 officers employed in the state.

The increase in disciplinary actions since 2011 is due to more funding and more clarity in the law about what constitutes bad behavior, according to Steed.

 

From 1999 to 2006, the state had one person assigned to the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center who was in charge of investigating law enforcement officers.

In 2006 the Kansas Legislature created CPOST and funded the agency with a $2.50 fee on cases in municipal courts, giving CPOST an entire team – a director, investigators and legal counsel –with its own funding in a separate office in Wichita. The fee was increased to $5 in 2016.

Another big change happened in 2012, when the Legislature identified 58 misdemeanor charges that can lead to an officer losing his or her license, including theft, battery, soliciting a prostitute or intimidating a witness.

Before 2012, an officer could in theory have lost his or her license for not maintaining “good moral character,” but in practice the term was legally too ambiguous to take action unless the officer had been convicted of a felony.

“Prior to 2012, those (offenses) would’ve been viewed as a ‘good moral character’ violation, so (whether their license would have been revoked) depends on the facts and circumstances,” according to Eric Williams, the outgoing legal counsel for CPOST.

But Williams said legal ambiguity meant few cases would likely have led to action. “The standard was not a good vehicle to get those things done,” he said.

NOT ANYMORE

In July, the agency published its findings on cases for the first half of 2016. They included an officer who was convicted of sexually assaulting a child and officers convicted of domestic violence. Those convictions would have probably resulted in loss of a license prior to 2012.

 

But in the majority of the cases listed in the report, the officers likely would have kept their licenses prior to the change in state law.

Among them:

▪ An officer started to romantically pursue a woman who reported domestic violence. He then lied about it. He lied in a separate call about lost property. He admitted that he had lied when he was about to take a polygraph.

▪ An officer allowed two inmates to spend time in a jail cell and watched them engage physically and made sexually suggestive remarks to inmates. He lied about it to investigators and was fired. After lying on his application, he was hired by another agency.

▪ An officer was charged with a misdemeanor assault of his estranged wife but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of damage to property.

▪ An officer offered a woman a ride home from a bar and then asked to see her breasts and fondled them without her consent. The CPOST findings don’t show that the officer was convicted of a criminal offense, so he might not have lost his license under the old system.

▪ An officer saw an instructor set down a folder with the answers to the test and took a picture. The officer later said he did it to “see if it could help him on the exam.” This wasn’t a felony, so in 2011 he might have been fired by his agency but in 2016 he lost his certification.

▪ An officer was convicted of stalking and violating a restraining order, neither of which were felonies.

All of the officers in the above cases had their licenses revoked.

Misbehavior

An analysis by the Eagle shows that, even though the agency is reprimanding and revoking more licenses, the general kinds of misbehavior hasn’t changed much since 1998.

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Most of the allegations continue to involve accusations of violence or sexual misdeeds, followed slightly by lying and then theft or burglary. The rest are mostly drug and alcohol offenses or officers who have not completed the required training or paperwork.

Many of the allegations are for off-duty behavior. But others occurred at work, including showing up to work inebriated, lying about internal investigations and using an official position to solicit sexual relations.

Every time an officer’s employment status changes in Kansas, CPOST is notified. About 200 of those times a year it’s “for cause” under questionable circumstances. But about half of those reasons for being fired, such as being late to work or under-performing, don’t warrant an investigation.

The agency investigates about 100 cases a year. And in about 35 to 40 of those cases the past few years, it has found a reason to take action, such as revoking or suspending the officer’s license.

That reduces the chance that a officer fired for misbehavior could get a law enforcement job in another city.

Even if an officer doesn’t have a state license revoked, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said, CPOST shares whether an the officer was fired while an investigation was underway.

A report from CPOST showing a previous firing is “a red flag,” Easter said.

HOW LOCAL DEPARTMENTS FAIRED

Just under two-thirds of the 428 Kansas agencies that report to CPOST have not had any officers disciplined since 1998. Most of those departments are in small cities and counties.

But some small departments, such as Wakefield and Argonia, which only employed one officer in 2016, have had officers lose their licenses.

And some large departments, such as Olathe and Riley County, which employ more than 100 officers, have only had one officer face action since 1998.

Wichita has had 15 actions taken against officers since 1998, the second-most in the state. But Wichita is also the largest department in the state. Compared to the current size of its department, Wichita has had the fifth-most most actions in the state per officer.

“We are the largest department in the state of Kansas and we have the largest city in the state of Kansas,” said Troy Livingston, a deputy police chief in Wichita. “So statistically it stands to reason that we would have more actions than other departments in the state.”

Kansas City, Kan., had both the most total number of actions taken against its officers since 1998 –18 – and the most actions per officer employed in 2016.

More punishment, or more misbehavior

Livingston, a deputy police chief in Wichita, said he views CPOST as a positive because “the public sees another layer of checks and balances.”

Easter, Sedgwick County’s sheriff, agrees.

“We’re holding individuals accountable to a higher standard that the public insists upon, so that’s a good thing,” Easter said.

“The bad thing is that,” he said, “do we have more law enforcement breaking the law or having egregious policy violations?”

The rise in officers losing their licenses may not just be due to CPOST casting a wider net, according to Easter, but could be because officers are behaving worse.

It’s ridiculous how many officers are committing criminal acts.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter

“My first 20 years on the police department, I can tell you on one hand how many police officers committed crimes and were charged for it and terminated,” Easter said. “In my last ... eights years, it’s ridiculous how many officers are committing criminal acts. I don’t know if it’s a change in the culture, a new generation into policing and they feel like they are entitled to more. My first 20 years you didn’t see this kind of activity and if you did, cops went after other cops, trying to get them out of our ranks.”

Easter said the solution to the problem may lie in better training or improved hiring practices. Easter was trained by the Wichita Police Department before he moved to the county, he said.

If we don’t hold our own accountable, we lose all trust, and if we don’t have trust, we can’t police Sedgwick County the way it should be.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter

“If we don’t hold our own accountable,” Easter said, “we lose all trust, and if we don’t have trust, we can’t police Sedgwick County the way it should be.”

CPOST has increased its actions against both the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County: 80 percent of CPOST actions since 1998 have occurred since 2011 in both jurisdictions.

Fired and rehired

In theory, every law enforcement agency who hires an officer would do a thorough background check and not hire officers with a questionable background. But in practice, this doesn’t always happen, especially among smaller, understaffed agencies.

A police officer who had his license revoked in Oregon after kissing a 10-year-old on the lips in 2004 was hired in Cedar Vale, Kan., a year later, according to a New York Times article in September.

The officer had been barred from taking another job as a police officer, according to his sentence in Oregon. But he lied about it on his application and was hired in Cedar Vale as the chief of police the following year.

In Cedar Vale, he was investigated over allegations of sexual contact with someone who was underage and was convicted on charges of burglary and criminal conspiracy. The officer was later imprisoned in Washington state for identity theft and possession of methamphetamine.

The Kansas CPOST now subscribes to a national database of officers who have lost their licenses. The list, maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement and Training, is not comprehensive, according to Steed. It only includes 37 states. Some states, like Hawaii, don’t have a CPOST, Steed said, and others, like California, cannot decertify its officers.

But if the list would have been in effect a decade ago, it could’ve prevented Sean Sullivan, the Cedar Vale police chief, from receiving his license in Kansas.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

Actions by department

Department

Number of disciplinary actions

Officers employed in 2016

Kansas City KS Police Department

18

344

Not Actively Employed

17

N/A

Wichita Police Department

15

646

Johnson County Sheriff's Office

10

447

Garden City Police Department

6

60

Kansas Highway Patrol

6

485

Topeka Police Department

6

180

Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office

5

284

Reno County Sheriff's Office

5

51

Shawnee County Sheriff's Department

5

107

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