While congressional negotiations bog down on a massive overhaul of policing policies, several states forged ahead with new laws to crack down on bad cops by stripping away the accreditation they needed to carry a badge.
Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington state made it easier to yank accreditation and bar officers from working in law enforcement in the state. It works in the same way as losing their license knocks lawyers, doctors or even hairdressers out of their professions.
However, the idea of exiling more police from the law enforcement business is causing consternation among police unions who say officers are already under a political assault.
“There is no profession under greater scrutiny, and no group of technical experts more adept at training and transforming the way they perform their duties than Washington’s peace officers,” said Teresa C. Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs. Her union represents officers and deputies in Washington state, which last month expanded the number of situations which can result in an officer losing accreditation.
The accreditation crackdown has emerged as a way to bypass the logjam in Congress over changing policing to address the racial justice uproar since the killing of George Floyd a year ago.
Congressional Democrats, who are demanding tougher penalties for bad cops, are focused on making it easier to sue officers by limiting qualified immunity, a legal standard that shields public officials from liability for their actions in the line of duty.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, one of the Democrats leading the talks, stressed that any deal must get rid of qualified immunity.
Republicans are just as adamant about not weakening the immunity. They argue that police already have difficult and dangerous jobs and the threat of lawsuits only adds stress when they must make split-second, life-or-death decisions.
The four states tackling accreditation decided to leave qualified immunity in place.
In Virginia, instead of police only facing decertification when convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, they can now get blacklisted for a set of standards to be created by the state.
Proponents of tougher standards say that only stripping accreditation if an officer is convicted of a crime lets some problematic cops off the hook.
A package of policing changes signed into law in May by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, dramatically expands the types of misconduct that can get an officer barred from law enforcement jobs in the state. Officers now can lose accreditation for their actions while off duty and for offenses including sexual harassment.
“Washington State’s recent changes to the role and authority of the Criminal Justice Training Commission will not be fully understood for some time,” Ms. Taylor, the union official said. “We remain concerned that its amended authority may interfere with the employer/employee relationship.”
In Illinois, a state police board previously could only strip accreditation if a cop was convicted of a felony or a small list of misdemeanors such as sexual misconduct, theft gambling and drug offenses.
As part of a sweeping set of policing changes enacted in February, the list of bad conduct that can result in lost accreditation now includes the use of excessive force, perjury, tampering with videos and any conduct deemed “unprofessional, unethical, deceptive, or deleterious.”
The Democrats’ George Floyd Justice in Policing bill, which passed the House in March but stalled in the Senate, would encourage states to toughen standards for police accreditation, though it does not say what the standards should be.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, a Democrat, said subjecting officers to tougher accreditation standards could be a way to break the deadlock in Congress over qualified immunity.
It is part of the negotiations on Capitol Hill.
“Everything at this point is on the table,” Mr. Booker said in an interview. He said he couldn’t reveal more without violating the confidentiality of the closed-door talks.
Stripping police accreditation is seen as a way around the qualified immunity debate in part because police unions are less adamantly opposed to the idea.
Tamara Cummings, general counsel for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, said the union is generally more comfortable with the change allowing more officers to lose their accreditation.
“We believe just like everybody else that we don’t want bad apples,” she said. “No one dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop.”
The union had initial concerns about subjecting more officers to being decertified. But she said the fact that the new law requires several steps that protect due process for cops.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a law in December that for the first time allowed the state to strip certifications. Officers in the state can now be decertified for several offenses, including committing a felony or a hate crime, using excessive force that results in death or serious bodily injury, or if a state commission determines that “the officer is not fit for duty as an officer and the officer is dangerous to the public.”
Washington state Sen. Jaime Pederson, a Democrat who sponsored the policing bill, said decertifying more officers will keep problematic officers from simply moving to different police departments in the state.
“A huge percentage of misconduct is performed by repeat offenders - ones who shuffled from department to department,” Mr. Pederson said in an interview. “In a hiring environment when departments are constantly trying to find more officers, it appeared they didn’t look or care if there was a pattern in hiring bad actors.”
Mr. Pederson argued that the state must step in if police departments are not doing enough to police their own.
“The state has a separate interest to make sure the people it certifies are trustworthy and meet the standards to carry a badge and a gun and enforce the law,” he said.