In Idaho, police officers can get in trouble and lose their jobs in one agency, only to be hired in another.
The state has taken steps to ensure that problem officers stay off the force, but that does not mean they cannot get a job in another state. Nor does it mean that problem officers from other states cannot get a job in Idaho.
At least one national expert gives Idaho credit for operating one of the better programs in the nation to revoke an officer’s credentials. But Idahoans still could be put at risk by police chiefs and sheriffs who do not conduct, or choose to ignore, thorough background checks on applicants.
The troubled pasts of the two Adams County sheriff’s deputies who shot and killed rancher Jack Yantis last year near Council underscore the problem.
Deputy Brian Wood had been fired in 2011 from his previous job as a police officer in the McCall Police Department in neighboring Valley County. Fellow Deputy Cody Roland had been counseled in 2007, while working for the Valley County sheriff, for his attitude during a traffic stop, and he was placed on a year’s probation in 2008 for “conduct unbecoming” in an unspecified off-duty incident.
Roland left the Adams County Sheriff’s Office less than a month after the Nov. 1, 2015, shooting. Sheriff Ryan Zollman dismissed Wood in August. Neither the deputies nor Zollman has explained their departures.
Some police administrators let such officers resign in lieu of termination. That keeps their legally required certifications in place and their records clean so they may pursue other jobs. They might find work in small agencies such as Adams County’s, which don’t pay as well.
And the problem isn’t just Idaho’s. Other states have it, too.
“The underfinanced departments depend on these cops who really should not be cops at all,” said Roger Goldman, an emeritus professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and a national expert on police decertification. “It is the nature of our system.”
What Idaho has done
Nearly 300 Idaho law officers in the past 10 years have lost their jobs and will never again work for an Idaho law enforcement agency.
They lost the certifications from the Idaho Peace Officer and Standards Training (POST), a division of the Idaho State Police. Among the reasons: domestic battery, sex with a minor, perjury, excessive force and witness tampering.
Most of Idaho’s decertifications are for ethical or conduct violations. Some are for felony convictions, including those of Minidoka County Sheriff Kevin Halverson and Jefferson County Sheriff Blair Olsen, who were convicted of job-related theft and fraud – Halverson in 2013 and Olsen in 2015.
In 2000, former Boise police officer Randall Hayes was sent to prison for raping a 15-year-old girl while he was on duty in 1998.
Boise officer Rob Berrier, who received the department’s medal of honor in 2009, lost his job in 2011 for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a confidential informant. Berrier resigned before he could be fired.
Other officers were decertified after pouring alcohol down minors’ throats while in uniform, covering up a sexual assault, or using too much cough syrup with dextromethorphan, or DXM, while on duty. High doses can cause euphoria or hallucinations.
What Idaho does right
Idaho POST has decertified 15 officers so far this year, less than 1 percent its active force of about 2,700 officers. The reasons included insubordination, grand theft, reporting to work while intoxicated, driving under the influence and having a romantic relationship while on duty.
Idaho is one of 44 states whose police standards divisions have authority to revoke an officer’s certification. Idaho is one of 21 states that also can decertify correctional, juvenile correctional, and parole and probation officers.
Those states decertified 1,847 officers in 2015, according to a survey by Matthew Hickman, a criminologist with Seattle University.
Some states, like Minnesota, decertify only those officers convicted of felonies. Idaho and other states decertify for either felony or misdemeanor convictions or for violating the POST codes of ethics and conduct.
“Idaho has a reputation of being one of the better ones,” Goldman said. “But no state is immune, even the good ones.”
Idaho law enforcement agencies are required to notify POST when an officer is fired, resigns or retires. But they’re not required to report whether an officer may have engaged in conduct that could lead to decertification. About 20 states have such a requirement.
With state laws a mishmash, and inconsistent mandates for reporting trouble, it is hard to keep track of decertified officers.
Worse, says Goldman, is that officers may be allowed to resign in lieu of termination.
Sometimes an agency just wants the problem officer to go away. Sometimes an officer knows he is under suspicion and quits before being investigated or disciplined. These “gypsy cops” can go from department to department with little or no record of their bad behavior.
Wood and Roland were summoned after dark to U.S. 95 next to Jack Yantis’ ranch because one of Yantis’ bulls had been struck by a car.
A dispatcher called Yantis at home, telling him to go to the highway to take care of the injured animal. Yantis brought his rifle to euthanize it. The deputies said Yantis held his rifle in a threatening way and refused their commands to lower it. They shot him 12 times.
The shooting led to an eight-month investigation by the Idaho State Police and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden concluded the shooting was neither justified nor unjustified. Wasden and Idaho’s U.S. attorney, Wendy Olson, said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge either deputy.
The Idaho State Police investigation found the incidents of discipline of both deputies by prior employers — things that should have shown up in a thorough background check. Wood had been fired in McCall for poaching. POST began a decertification investigation but ended it in 2012 and will not say why.
Zollman, the Adams County sheriff, said he assigned a deputy to conduct a background check on Wood, and everything checked out, so Zollman hired Wood in 2013. Jerry Summers, then McCall’s police chief, said no one called him.
Wood and Roland are still certified, though their certifications are inactive. Though they are not currently employed in Idaho law enforcement, they are eligible to return. Efforts to ascertain their whereabouts and current employment were unsuccessful.
Some experts, including Goldman, say better background checks are one answer.
But Goldman said background checks might not weed out bad applicants. A bad record might not prevent an officer from getting a job. Managers of small, underfunded departments with few qualified applicants might think, “It is because of the bad record we are able to hire him,” he said.
Hiring a new recruit means an agency must pay for weeks or months of training at the POST academy before the officer can start patrolling, straining limited resources.
“The rationalization is: ‘We are not happy you that you did these things in the past, but on the other hand we can hire you right now, you’ve got your training and we do not have that much money in our agency anyway, and you cannot command much of a salary at any other place,’” Goldman said.
“But they are not going to tell you that. What they will typically say is, ‘Oh he’s a good guy. He just made a mistake that one time.’”
Former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney said large agencies like the Ada County Sheriff’s Office or the Boise Police Department pay better than most and rarely consider, much less hire, applicants who have been fired for misconduct.
Raney said every agency, even small ones, should conduct background investigations and preferably administer pre-employment polygraph and psychological exams.
“That would go a long ways,” said Raney, now a consultant in Boise for the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Polygraphs are tricky, as they are not perfect science and only as good as the examiner,” Raney said. But his office used them on applicants and flunked about one-third of them after the polygraphs revealed past crimes, misconduct or other things that would make them unfit, he said.
Two more steps police could take
Raney, who spent six years as chairman of Idaho’s POST Council, said it is hard to catch officers who resign before they are disciplined because of due-process protections, but he has a proposal:
“The only clear way to resolve this in Idaho is to strengthen POST’s authority in hiring decisions, making it so agencies are mandated to honestly report the terms of separation,” he said. “What I supported as the POST Council Chair was putting the agency head’s certification at risk if they misrepresented the terms of separation.”
The council declined to require that, he said, “but I think it may be the next step down the path.”
Goldman said agencies and the public also would benefit from a comprehensive, nationwide system for reporting problem law enforcement officers to a national database.
Such a database already exists, and it is administered by an organization in Meridian. The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training is led by former Idaho POST director Michael Becar.
The association maintains the National Decertification Index, which contains the names of decertified officers voluntarily supplied by participating states. The index now contains 21,548 decertifications reported by 40 states.
Any law enforcement official checking backgrounds of applicants can query the index at no cost, Becar said. The public cannot access it.
Raney said participating in, and using, the database should be mandatory for law enforcement.
One more tool
Even so, hiring decisions often come down to the ethics of the person doing the hiring or the agency’s financial condition, Goldman said.
There may be one more tool, he said: High liability and litigation costs could force insurers to drop problem departments.
Raney agrees, especially since his suggestions for mandatory background checks and strengthening POST’s authority in hiring decisions aren’t likely to be backed by the Idaho Legislature for city and county employees.
“The harm reduction of avoiding litigation costs, insurance premium increases and public embarrassment after a bad event is the other driver,” Raney said, “but often comes after the fact.”
Idaho police officers: Underpaid?
Nationally, the mean annual salary of a patrol officer is $61,270 ($29.45 hourly), according to a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
In Idaho, the mean annual salary of a patrol officer is $50,060 ($24.07 hourly).
Here’s a sampling of starting hourly pay for certified officers at Idaho law enforcement agencies:
Boise Police Department: $24.66
Meridian Police Department: $22.41
Blaine County Sheriff’s Office: $22.26
Lewiston Police Department: $22.21
Ada County Sheriff’s Office: $20
Idaho State Police: $19.48
Canyon County Sheriff’s Office: $18.38
Clearwater Sheriff’s Office: $16.67
Adams County: $15.97
Washington State Police: $27.40
Oregon State Police: $26.83
Idaho police officers: Overworked?
A SafeWise report released in October found that Idaho ranked No. 3 in the nation in 2014 for most overworked police forces. Michigan was first, Nevada second.
According to the report, for each Idaho officer there were 483 people, one violent crime and 18 property crimes in 2014. (Some good news: The SafeWise study also found that Idaho has one of the lowest property crime and violent crime rates the nation.)
Here’s how neighboring states compare:
Montana: One violent crime, eight property crimes and 216 people per officer.
Wyoming: Two violent crimes, 13 property crimes and 343 people.
Utah: Two violent crimes, eight property crimes and 316 people.
Nevada: Two violent crimes, 21 property crimes and 248 people.
Oregon: One violent crime, nine property crimes and 288 people.
Washington: One violent crime, seven property crimes and 383 people.