Michigan’s police secrecy raises concerns about ‘wandering cops’

Keeping the identities of police officers a secret makes it impossible for the public to monitor cops who leave one agency and go to another after alleged misconduct

By: - August 14, 2023 3:25 am

Michigan State Police | Susan J. Demas

The state of Michigan is keeping the identities of police officers a secret, making it impossible for the public to monitor “wandering cops” who leave one agency after alleged misconduct and move to another law enforcement job.

Michigan State Police declined a Freedom of Information Act request from Metro Times and the Invisible Institute seeking the identities of all certified and uncertified officers, saying “the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

MSP also argued that releasing the names of officers “would endanger the life and safety of the law enforcement officers and their families, because the information would lead to [their] doxing.”

By withholding the identities of officers, MSP is impeding the public’s ability to track cops who lose their job in one place only to be rehired at another.

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Michigan is one of 15 states that denied access to the information, while 36 have disclosed at least some portion of certification data, in response to requests made by a national coalition of news organizations.

Metro Times and the Invisible Institute appealed MSP’s denial of the data, arguing that the “disclosure of basic identifying information of public officials is essential for maintaining a free and democratic society.” The appeal, too, was rejected.

The University of Michigan law school’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative represented the Metro Times and Invisible Institute in the administrative appeal. Its director, Mike Steinberg, rejected MSP’s argument that releasing the names of officers would endanger them. MSP “already releases the names and photographs of police officers when they graduate from the academy,” he said. “We don’t think that would hold up in court. They haven’t provided any instances where public safety was jeopardized because the name of an officer was made public.”

There’s “an argument to be made on both sides,” said Steve Delie, executive director of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, because “we want to be somewhat protective of police officers’ private information.”

“At the same time, an investigation on something of incredible public importance is, how many of these officers are moving from department to department?” he continued. “It becomes very, very difficult to say whether or not this is a problem and to describe the scope of the problem without access to the information you need to do so. And if that information isn’t out there, no one can make the changes necessary to solve the issue.”

Isaiah McKinnon, a retired chief of police for the Detroit Police Department, said the public’s access to information on wandering cops is essential to reducing the ability of abusive officers to find work at another law enforcement agency.

“It would be difficult, but there’s got to be some way for that information to be supplied to the people of their respective communities,” McKinnon told the Metro Times. “We should know if an officer has a lot of complaints. It’s really important for the community to know about that because of safety and the potential for a lawsuit.”

In Michigan, like many states, there are no laws requiring police departments to disclose information about much of an officer’s misconduct to another law enforcement agency. Without reporting requirements, agencies are at risk of unknowingly hiring officers who left their previous job under questionable circumstances.

The consequences can be deadly, McKinnon says.

“In law enforcement, what you have is a person who has the potential of taking a life,” McKinnon, who also served as deputy mayor of Detroit, says. “You basically have more power than the Michigan Supreme Court. We want to make sure those people who commit heinous acts are not purposely or inadvertently allowed to join a law enforcement agency.”

It’s “fairly common” for abusive cops to get fired from one job and then hired at another, according to a Duke Law School study in 2020 that examined wandering officers in Florida.

Researchers identified about 1,000 law enforcement officers in the state who had been fired from one job and rehired at another between 1988 and 2016. The actual number is likely much higher, the researchers said, because it doesn’t include officers who were fired in other states or concealed their employment history. The researchers also believe wandering officers are far more prevalent in other states because Florida “has a robust statewide data system tracking officer employment and requires hiring agencies to investigate applicants’ employment history.”

A Detroit Free Press investigation published in July 2017 found about two dozen problematic officers who “jumped from department to department in recent years.” Some of them were fired and criminally charged, only to find work at another law enforcement agency. One of them was William Melendez, known as “Robocop,” who over his two decades in law enforcement had been accused of planting evidence, making false arrests, and brutally beating a motorist. Despite his checkered past, Highland Park and Inkster police departments hired him after he was fired from the Detroit Police Department.

Detroit Police | Susan J. Demas

Another officer was charged and fired from the Southgate Police Department after he severely injured a motorcyclist in an off-duty crash and then fled the scene. He was rehired by another department.

In Oakland County, a deputy was fired for his conduct during a narcotics investigation, leading to prosecutors dropping 17 criminal cases. That didn’t stop him from getting another job as a deputy in a different county.

The Free Press reporters were unable to access even the names of officers that the state had decertified, or stripped of their certification — a position that MSP has since revised.

The ability of abusive cops to get another job “has troubled me for as long as I have been in law enforcement,” McKinnon says.

“If a law enforcement officer commits an act like being violent, he or she leaves the department, gets another job, and their records are still clean. These are the things that really bothers me and should really bother any other law enforcement officer or elected official.”

After the Free Press investigation was published in 2017, a law was passed that required police departments to keep a record of officer separations, and officers to sign a waiver allowing departments to view their previous records. But it didn’t prevent officers with significant histories of misconduct or use of force from being hired again, and didn’t prevent agencies from allowing officers to resign, rather than be terminated. If an officer is allowed to resign, the documentation required to be kept about their separation is likely to be much less substantial.

In 2021, Michigan state Sen. Jeremy Moss introduced another bill aimed at making it easier for law enforcement agencies to identify officers who have a checkered past. But with Republicans holding a majority in the Senate, the legislation languished. Now that Democrats have control of the Senate for the first time in 38 years, Moss expects his bill to gain traction this year when he refiles it.

Senate Bill 474 would have required police departments to report all use-of-force violations, in addition to the separation records that they’re required to provide to new prospective employers for their former officers. That way law enforcement agencies would have broader access to a job applicants’ history of misconduct.

“It requires a lot more specificity in the separation records so a hiring agency knows the details and the circumstances and the number of excessive force violations so they have more information on hiring decisions,” Moss told the Metro Times. “I’m hopeful that is something that can make it past the finish line.”

After talking with law enforcement agencies about the bill, Moss says he’s received a lot of support.

“I have found that many of our police departments don’t want these officers in their ranks and want the tools to root out those who pollute law enforcement,” Moss says. “We have to make sure that those who have soiled the profession aren’t still in the profession. This is a tool for hiring agencies to say we don’t want this character within our ranks.”

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) on June 13, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

To curtail wandering cops, a Manhattan Institute report in 2022 also recommended automatically decertifying officers for certain offenses or department violations to prevent other law enforcement agencies from hiring them. Although Moss’s bill doesn’t require decertification, he says he’s open to exploring the idea.

“This is a conversation we need to continue having,” Moss said. “You have a lot of public scrutiny on our police departments, as well as there should be.”

Regardless of the state’s current practices, “We believe this is an important civil rights case,” said the University of Michigan’s Steinberg, who was previously the legal director for the ACLU of Michigan. “The work that the Metro Times and Invisible Institute are doing to expose officers who engage in repeated police misconduct is a civil rights and civil liberties issue. And we want the state police to be transparent so that they can be held accountable.”

Additional reporting by Sam Stecklow, Invisible Institute.

This story first ran in the Detroit Metro Times. Follow them: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook Twitter

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Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Detroit Metro Times. He operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker, Neavling was a five-year veteran of the Detroit Free Press, covering Detroit’s city hall.