State officials investigated last year allegations that a law enforcement officer pointed a handgun at his son’s head while intoxicated.
The same officer was also intoxicated during “multiple incidents of domestic disturbances,” Sandy Karsten, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, testified last week during a Senate committee hearing.
Karsten wanted to suspend the officer’s license. But current law wouldn’t allow it because the incidents occurred when he was off duty.
“The attorney general’s office stated that since it did not take place on duty, it could not be proven that his drinking made him unable to perform the functions of a peace officer,” Karsten told state senators.
The same thing happened, Karsten said, when she wanted to suspend the license of an officer accused of soliciting sex from juveniles. The attorney general’s office said she couldn’t suspend his license because the officer was off duty when the alleged behavior took place.
Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Brian William, D-University City, the phrase “while on active duty or under color of law” would be deleted from state law to allow the public safety director to discipline officers when they commit acts involving “moral turpitude” or a reckless disregard for public safety when they’re off duty.
It also allows the director to suspend the licenses of officers who test positive for a controlled substance that they don’t have a prescription for. And it would set the number of training hours required for a license to a minimum of 600 hours, up from 470 hours.
Karsten — along with police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement officials — testified in support of the bill.
“These changes are not intended to discipline more officers,” Karsten said. “They have a tough job already. The changes are intended to add professionalism and to hold accountable those few officers committing mistakes of the heart.”
In June 2020, Gov. Mike Parson tasked the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission — which is responsible for overseeing licensing and training for the state’s law enforcement officers — with making sure officers are held to a higher standard, Karsten said.
It was in response to the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder by a former Minneapolis police officer.
Williams’ bill consists entirely of the POST Commission’s resulting recommendations.
Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Whitewater, has filed an identical bill in the Missouri House.
“We have a tremendous opportunity during these times to really position our country to get back to not allowing divisiveness to continue to steer how we govern,” Williams said.
Susan Rockett, director of Mexico, Mo.’s, public safety department, testified that the city discovered that one of its officers was stalking his girlfriend. After his commanding officer talked to him about his behavior, the officer abruptly resigned and found a job somewhere else.
The woman continued to complain about his “abuse of power police powers in their relationship,” Rockett said.
“We find that escape from discipline leads to empowerment and entitlement,” she said. “And each incident becomes worse than the last. When an officer refuses to redeem themselves and perpetuates flagrant disregard to police standards, they are not suited nor fit to hold the peace officer license.”
When there is a complaint about an officer, the POST Program staff will conduct investigations and then present their findings to Karsten, who will consider discipline on the licenses of law enforcement officers.
Karsten gave examples of cases involving “moral turpitude,” such as fraud, theft, bribery, illegal drug use or sexual misconduct, where the POST Program was prevented acting because the infraction happened off duty.
The POST Program also has dealt with multiple instances where a licensed officer tested positive for an illegal controlled substance without a valid prescription, and the officer was terminated from their employing agency.
However, current state law doesn’t allow POST to take away their license, so those officers are able to simply move to another department.
“With the law enforcement vacancies statewide, the potential exists that this officer could be hired by a different agency,” she said.
Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen, Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak and Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott also testified about their experiences with officers hopping to other departments.
“I want professional policing out there, just like our community expects,” said Marshak, who is also a POST Commissioner. “And with the wording that’s in place now — without this bill — it allows police officers who behave badly to be employed by other police agencies.”
Williams said the measure built on legislation passed last session that required every POST licensee to register and participate in the Missouri Rap Back program, which is also used for background checks on Missouri teachers.
According to POST program director Jeremy Spratt, only 2,000 of the state’s roughly 17,000 law enforcement officers were registered with the program as of last December.
Columbia Police Chief Jeff Jones believes the proposed changes will bolster accountability.
“Without POST being able to take action on licenses, there’s a potential that that would be missed in the Rap Back program,” Jones said. “And I think this fills a gap.”
Williams’ legislation last year also required all candidates seeking licensing from POST to sign and submit the background waiver form, which will allow potential law enforcement employers the opportunity to conduct background investigations.
Previously that wasn’t a requirement, and many law enforcement CEOs were reluctant to release information about police officers to potential employers for liability reasons, Marshak told The Independent last spring.
Increasing the required training hours is also an important part of the proposed bill, said Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill, who is also a POST Commissioner.
In some of the state’s rural areas, Hill said, the commission sees law enforcement agencies that are run by individuals who don’t necessarily have as much training as they probably should have for that position.
“Giving this power to DPS to be able to help and assist in some of the egregious things that go on some of these agencies will really help for that accountability aspect of it,” he said.
In his closing remarks, Williams pointed to his two interns who were sitting at the committee hearing.
“It’s so important for the next generation to see law enforcement leaders stand up,” Williams said, “and really talk about the integrity of the profession.”
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.