Professor Roger Goldman’s crusade against “wandering cops” began 41 years ago, when two bullets from Joseph Sorbello’s revolver tore through the body of an alleged car thief, Roy Wash, in a parking lot behind a store at 7170 Manchester Boulevard in Maplewood.
The shots killed the alleged thief, but they triggered an epiphany for the still youthful Saint Louis University law professor.
Goldman, now 79, read the March 21, 1980, account in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Wash’s shooting the day before. The story reported Sorbello as saying that after he surprised the alleged thief in the act of stealing his car, Wash had reached inside his waistband as if for a gun, but no gun was found.
It also reported that the .45 caliber weapon Sorbello had used to kill Wash had been his by dint of his employment as a part-time officer in the police force of Bridgeton Terrace. Finally, it reported that Sorbello had been fired in 1977 from his full-time job at the Maplewood Police Department after allegations that he had lied to a grand jury, tampered with evidence and brutalized prisoners.
Sorbello’s own former colleague had testified he had seen him stick the muzzle of his gun in a prisoner’s mouth and order him to suck on it. While questioning at least two other prisoners, one a 16 -year-old boy, Sorbello had allegedly pointed his gun at their heads and pulled the trigger in a one-way game of Russian Roulette.
Later, another Maplewood police officer engaging in the same sport shot another prisoner, Thomas Brown, to death in the headquarters – an event that led to a housecleaning of the police department and criminal charges.
How was it, Goldman wondered, that Bridgeton Terrace would have hired someone with that kind of record? How could he have still been certified to be a policeman under Missouri law? Other professions – from medicine to the law to cosmetology – took steps to decertify bad actors. Yet the police, who have life and death power over all of us, did not.
Goldman started a legislative campaign to change the law in his home state. Clarence Harmon, a former head of Internal Affairs for the St. Louis Police Department and later chief and mayor, testified that as many as 90 percent of officers who leave the St. Louis department under a cloud simply get new jobs with municipalities in St. Louis County.
The new Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Law passed and took effect in 1988.
Since 1988, Goldman estimates, Missouri has decertified over 1,000 officers. In 2015, according to figures from a survey conducted by a Seattle University researcher, Missouri revoked 53 licenses – more than all but seven other states in the country that year. Despite that record, Goldman says, the Missouri law still needs work, including an expansion to cover not only police officers, but also prison guards, probation and parole personnel, and other corrections officers.
Goldman next went to Illinois and then Indiana, both of which passed laws.
There is a straightforward solution to the problem of wandering cops, Goldman and other experts say:
- A national database open to the public with the names of all officers who have engaged in misconduct;
- A requirement that all law enforcement agencies consult that database before hiring.
But that solution has proved elusive.
Most states keep the names of disciplined officers secret and the vast majority of departments do not fully investigate the background of an officer they are hiring.
Police chiefs, who have found it difficult to rid their departments of problem officers, generally support stronger laws. Police unions oppose them, arguing that past allegations — many of them denied — shouldn’t follow officers through their careers.
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, an Idaho-based nonprofit, has created a national response to the problem of wandering cops, the National Decertification Index (NDI). Forty-five states provide records of misconduct on 30,172 officers so that states can check the NDI database to see if an officer applying for a job has had previous problems.
But the NDI database is badly flawed, experts say. For one thing, most departments don’t check it before hiring. For another, the names in the database are not public. For a third, some of the biggest states in the country are not in the system.
The NDI database has another flaw. It omits police misconduct that is not serious enough for an officer to be decertified. In many states, only conviction of a felony leads to decertification. So serious misbehavior short of a felony is not included in the database.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, commissioned by President Barack Obama after a series of police killings in 2014, called for the federal government, through the Department of Justice, to follow Goldman’s recommendation to partner with and beef up the NDI database, making it truly national. Police unions, however, opposed this recommendation as unfair to officers who face false allegations. The reform hasn’t happened.
“It’s a real mess for chiefs of police departments,” says David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a police expert. “You go to any chiefs of police conference and every table has the same discussion: ‘I fired this guy and we got him back because it was overturned in union arbitration.’”
The Muni Shuffle
In St. Louis, wandering police are so common that there is a name for the phenomenon: the Muni-Shuffle.
St. Ann, a suburb of 14,000 near Lambert Field, is the refuge for many officers who have shuffled their way out of bigger departments in St. Louis and St. Louis County, often after killing or abusing civilians.
One was Eddie Boyd III, who as a St. Louis officer pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in the face in 2006. He said it was an accident. In 2007 he struck a child in the face with his gun and handcuffs before falsifying a police report, according to Missouri state decertification records.
Boyd faced a state decertification order, but a jury ruled in his favor in a lawsuit involving one of the pistol-whipping incidents and he was allowed to keep his badge.
St. Ann hired him.
From there, Boyd shuffled his way to nearby Ferguson in 2012 and was on the force leading up to the 2014 death of Michael Brown. A Ferguson woman sued Boyd, saying he arrested her for asking for his name at the scene of a traffic accident.
Boyd also was an officer cited by the Justice Department in its finding of a pattern of unconstitutional policing in Ferguson. He issued nine citations to Fred Watson, an employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Watson had just finished playing basketball and gotten into his car when Boyd arrived to charge him with not wearing a seat belt and a host of other unfounded violations. Watson said Boyd drew his gun and pointed it at his head for using his cell phone.
Another St. Louis police officer who found refuge in St. Ann was Christopher Tanner, who shot former Black St. Louis officer Milton Green at Green’s home in 2017. A police chase sped into Green’s neighborhood while he was off-duty working on his car in his driveway. A first white officer ordered Green to the ground and forced him to drop his service revolver. No sooner had that officer allowed Green to get up and retrieve his gun but Tanner arrived, told him to drop the pistol and immediately shot him. Green sued the city in 2019.
Tanner soon was joined in St. Ann by Jonathan Foote, who resigned from the St. Louis Police Department after a traffic stop led to a crash where a bystander was killed. And there was Christopher Childers, fired from the St. Louis department after assaulting another officer by firing a stun gun at her in her patrol car. He also had initiated a chase that resulted in the death of a bystander. St. Ann fired Childers recently for overdosing on opioids.
St. Ann’s elected Police Chief Aaron Jimenez also hired officer Ellis Brown after he was forced out of the St. Louis Police Department and his state certification suspended. Brown lied about a 2016 incident where he tailed a car, which accelerated, crashed and started burning. Brown left the scene instead of calling for help and then claimed in a report that he hadn’t been there. Brown also was one of two officers who had shot Kajieme Powell to death in St. Louis after a shoplifting complaint in 2014. He said he acted in self-defense because Powell had a knife.
Also, 19 of Brown’s questionable search warrants were thrown out because he used the same language in each.
After St. Ann hired him, Brown was convicted in June 2021 in federal court of violating the civil rights of a suspect he attacked in St. Ann. Bank video captured Brown repeatedly kicking a suspect who lay prone after a 20-minute chase.
In 2017 St. Ann hired Mark Jakob, one of two St. Louis County police officers fired for lying about a high-speed chase that ended in two deaths. The officers at first claimed not to have been involved in the chase, but an activist group released video showing they were.
Chief Jimenez’s department favors aggressive tactics such as police chases. Despite its small size, St. Ann police conduct as many high-speed chases as the nearby St. Louis and St. Louis Police Departments that are 20 times bigger. Jimenez has said publicly he checks on officers’ backgrounds but hired officers like Tanner and Brown because they hadn’t been fired.
There is one chase a week in St. Ann and one crash every two weeks, sometimes with deadly consequences, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Finally, St. Ann hired ex-Iraqi war veteran Joshua Daniel Becherer, a member of the St. Louis Police Department SWAT team that killed Isaiah Hammett in a controversial no-knock raid in 2017 in which police fired 93 shots. Becherer resigned from the St. Louis department in 2017 after his arrest for domestic assault for pointing a loaded rifle at a woman’s face and threatening to kill her.
Becherer is a good example of how an officer’s past misdeeds are kept secret from the public.
None of this information about Becherer was released by the POST Commission in Missouri. In fact, the only things that are open to the public about police officers under Missouri’s Sunshine Law is the name of the officer, license status and commissioning or law enforcement agency where the officer is employed.
The most recent session of the Missouri Legislature went a step further in hiding police abuse by closing all investigative records of misconduct.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded this project. This article, by Paul Wagman and William Freivogel, is published through a Creative Commons license.