The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 25, 2021 1:00 am

New decertification law gets tough on rogue police

'We don't want bad officers'

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Destroying evidence. Excessive force. Sexual misconduct with a minor. Killing someone while driving drunk. Stealing guns.

These are just a few of the reasons why 48 law enforcement officers in Indiana have lost their police certification since the state started taking action in 2005. According to the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, there are 17,000 full-time, part-time and reserve officers in Indiana.

A new law means more officers will likely be added to the list.

“We want police officers to reach the highest standard. We don't want bad officers out there,” Ligonier Police Chief Bryan Shearer said. “A few bad apples just tarnish it so bad. But we also see so much citizen support. They know 99.9% of the officers are there for the right reason.”

Shearer represents a city or town with a population of less than 10,000 as a member of the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Board.

Currently an officer has to be convicted of a felony or at least two misdemeanors that would cause a reasonable person to believe the officer is potentially dangerous or violent, or has a propensity to violate the law. Once a conviction is on the books, the process used by the board to decertify is quick and efficient, with no reinstatement possible.

But House Bill 1006 – a response to last year's racial justice protests – will now allow decertification for allegations of criminal conduct even if the officer isn't charged.

Certification is required for all law enforcement officers in the state. Taking it away makes it impossible for officers to simply resign, move and continue as a police officer in another jurisdiction.

But Timothy Horty, executive director of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, said expanding why someone can be decertified comes with new due process rights, likely making the time line much longer in discipline cases. Lawmakers also added a reinstatement process.

“Before if there was a conviction there was no gray area, but now because the threshold has been widened there could be gradations of a revocation and suspension,” he said.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, the architect of House Bill 1006, said he sat down with all stakeholders last summer and decertification was one area they wanted to improve. Police groups including the Fraternal Order of Police were all on board.

“We were trying to hone in on the rogue or wandering officer,” Steuerwald said. “We dug in and realized it was a high standard to decertify under the old law. It was not easy to do. We decided to give more discretion to the board so with that came due process rights. The two kind of went hand-in-hand.”

Horty said cases were definitely getting lost in the cracks because previously no one was required to report convictions to the 17-member training board. Sometimes a prosecutor might send a case along and other times a board member would see a report on television and bring it to the board.

Some high-profile cases – such as Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer David Bisard, who, while driving drunk in his squad car, killed a motorcyclist – did not result in decertification until reporters intervened.

Under the new law, the head of the agency where the officer got in trouble must report the activity to the board – even if the officer resigns.

“We are supportive of weeding officers out of our ranks that don't deserve to be there,” Horty said.

An accused officer will now have an evidentiary hearing before a subcommittee of the training board, which will act as fact-finder rather than an administrative law judge. That smaller committee will make a recommendation to the full board, which will ultimately vote.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said the board likely will need to meet more often now. In the past, votes were largely just pro forma and often the officer voluntarily relinquished certification as part of a plea agreement.

“This board is going to get real,” Carter said. “This is a big deal.”

The training board is establishing a stop-gap procedure for the disciplinary cases because a full administrative rule can take up to a year. An Aug. 16 meeting is scheduled to discuss it.

Academy Attorney Tim Cain prepared a resolution to consider, saying “we have a responsibility to protect the public from bad apple police officers. We may be dancing on the head of a pin. This won't be an easy project.”

The board will have to choose a level of proof required. The proposal is for “clear and convincing evidence,” which is higher than “a preponderance of evidence” used in civil cases but not as high as “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases.

The proposal also includes the type of misdemeanor crimes that would count as one that would cause a reasonable person to believe the officer is violent or dangerous. Examples include domestic battery, operating a vehicle while intoxicated and any misdemeanor involving the use of a firearm.

Horty urged the board to specifically think about drunken driving, saying, “I'm not sure that's an absolute disqualifier.”

Another proposed definition is a misdemeanor that would cause a reasonable person to believe the officer has demonstrated a propensity to violate the law. Some examples are crimes involving immorality, false statements, obstruction of justice and assisting a criminal.

An officer's name will be confidential until “written charges are proffered or by consent.”

“There is a fragile magic here some place,” Carter said.

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