One of the most confounding distortions of language centers around the colloquialism of “bad apples” with regard to policing. The phrase is frequently used to minimize the severity of the policing problem in this country: Why say policing itself is the problem when we can focus on throwing out the few “bad apples” of the bunch?
The phrase’s origins, of course, speak to contagion and corruption: a few bad apples are capable of spoiling all the other “good” ones. And as a new study illustrates, these so-called “bad apples” don’t just spoil one department or community—all too often, cops fired because of egregious infractions just end up working for another agency.
The study, entitled “The Wandering Officer,” appears in the Yale Law Journal and marks “the first systematic investigation of wandering officers and possibly the largest quantitative study of police misconduct of any kind,” according to authors Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport. Focusing exclusively on Florida, Grunwald and Rappaport analyzed data on 98,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the state over a 30-year period. They found that “wandering officers”—cops fired from one agency only to be hired at another—were “relatively common,” according to the Washington Post.
But just as importantly, given the chance at a fresh start, these wandering officers continued the same behavior that previously got them fired.
Here’s how Grunwald captured the findings in an interview with the Post:
First, during any given year, there are about 1,100 full-time law enforcement officers working in Florida who had been previously fired from other Florida agencies — that’s roughly 3 percent of all full-time law enforcement officers working in the state. Second, police officers who are fired tend to get rehired by another agency within three years. Third, officers who’ve been fired and land another job tend to move to smaller agencies with fewer resources and slightly larger communities of color. Finally, when a wandering officer gets hired by a new agency, they tend to get fired about twice as often as other officers and are more likely to receive “moral character violations,” both in general and for physical and sexual misconduct.
How the different findings work with each other is important: not only do bad cops continue to work high-stakes jobs, they do so in increasingly vulnerable communities. And as one might expect, absent any real consequence aside from a move to another town, police aren’t incentivized to change their behavior—and many don’t.
Addressing why police departments may hire risky officers, Grunwald suggested two possibilities—lack of knowledge, due to the big holes in state and national decertification databases, and a culture of impunity.
“Law-enforcement agencies are highly immunized from legal liability,” Grunwald told the Post. “And, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, there can be a band-of-brothers ethos among police officers, where they feel that they are duty-bound to unconditionally support each other.”
While comprehensive, one important data set the analysis doesn’t cover is officers fired by an agency, only to be rehired by that same agency at a later date.
“Our definition of wandering officer excludes these cases, but there are a substantial number of cases in which officers are fired and then rehired by the same agency,” said Rappaport. Anecdotally, police unions play a major role in reinstating problem officers back into the departments and communities they have caused harm to, he added.
Moving forward, the researchers say there needs to be better data collection on officers who are fired, as well as consistent and accessible databases to search this information (Florida is one of a few states that have decades worth of disciplinary data to pull from). Rappaport suggested that police chiefs may be in the dark about how risky wandering officers are to their departments—generously allowing that an “education campaign” may do the trick. But he also put a “nuclear option” on the table, modeled by Connecticut: prohibit law enforcement from hiring any officer previously fired (this would only be possible with accurate data collection, he cautioned).
But given the impact one bad cop can have on a city, it seems clear that in this case, the “nuclear option” is far from the worst-case scenario.