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Carlton T. Mayers II: Decertification is an underused lever for Chicago police accountability

November 20, 2023

If Chicago Police Department officers are affiliated with criminal organizations or hate groups or make false statements about their stops and arrests, how can they be held accountable?

The typical answer includes criminal liability, civil liability and internal administrative discipline, such as the Chicago Police Board or its more police-friendly alternative of arbitration — but seldom decertification. To be sure, these mechanisms for accountability are appropriate, but they are often incomplete since they do not prevent officers who engaged in misconduct from transferring to another police department.

The decertification process, however, is independent from criminal, civil and internal disciplinary hearing processes. Therefore, it is the best way to ensure that a police officer who has engaged in misconduct cannot become a “wandering officer” — e.g., transferring from one police department to another without accountability — by revoking his or her license.

“Wandering officers” are a real problem as seen in the officer who killed Eric Garner in New York City, despite his prior misconduct at a different police department, and the officer who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who engaged in misconduct prior to joining the Ferguson police force.

We should consider a recent report by the city Office of Inspector General, which alleges that more than 100 CPD officers have actually lied while performing their duties, and recent investigative reports that identify dozens of current or former Illinois law enforcement officers affiliated with extremist groups. The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, Civilian Office of Police Accountability, Police Board and OIG can and should use decertification as an essential lever for police accountability. This is particularly crucial since one of the CPD officers highlighted in the OIG’s report still serves on the force after a 120-day suspension for lying about his affiliation with the far-right Proud Boys extremist group.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states across the country have recently enacted at least 92 police oversight bills that allow civilians and civilian review boards to initiate the decertification process by filing a complaint of violation of a police officer’s certification directly with the state licensing authority — sometimes called the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Previously, only police chiefs and sheriffs were authorized under state law to file such complaints.

The tide is changing. Now, several states provide civilians with this authority, and at least two states, including Illinois, explicitly provide civilian review boards with this authority. Given the increase in the number of civilian review boards nationally since 2020, including in Chicago, Rockford and Aurora, this new policy could be a game-changer for police accountability.

Here are the specifics for Illinois: Under Illinois’ SAFE-T Act, civilians, civilian review boards and inspector generals can directly notify the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board, or ILETSB, about certification violations within seven days of becoming aware of a potential violation. For police misconduct, the SAFE-T Act states that ILETSB may decertify/revoke the waiver of law enforcement officers who, in the course of their duties, have “committed perjury, made a false statement, or knowingly tampered with or fabricated evidence (or) engaged in any unprofessional, unethical, deceptive, or deleterious conduct or practice harmful to the public.”

Given this language, we have an additional and impactful way to deal with CPD officers who have engaged in conduct that may not be criminal but is still disturbing and unethical. Police officers take an oath to faithfully discharge their duties, serve with integrity and do basic tasks such as telling the truth. This is what Chicago residents deserve, and Chicago’s civilian oversight authorities should use every available lever to hold CPD officers to their oaths.

Carlton T. Mayers II, founder of Mayers Strategic Solutions, formerly directed the criminal justice reform program for the NAACP’s national office and co-wrote the NAACP report “Born Suspect: Stop and Frisk Abuses & the Continued Fight to End Racial Profiling In America.”

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