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LISTEN: Police officers in Washington state are rarely decertified, investigation finds

Seattle police officers form a line during a protest in downtown Seattle on May 30. Seattle Police Department has been criticized for use of force during Black Lives Matter protests in recent months.
Parker Miles Blohm
KNKX (file)
Seattle police officers form a line during a protest in downtown Seattle on May 30. Seattle Police Department has been criticized for use of force during Black Lives Matter protests in recent months.

If a police officer behaves badly enough, that officer can lose the ability to work in law enforcement forever. Decertification prevents problematic officers from bouncing from department to department.

Mike Reicher, an investigative reporter with The Seattle Times, reviewed four years of data and found police are very rarely decertified in Washington state.

An officer can be decertified for felony convictions, lying to the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, the agency that oversees certifications, or for various shades of misconduct.  

Excessive force theoretically falls under one umbrella of misconduct, Reicher says. But no officer in the state has ever lost certification for using excessive force. And a big obstacle in holding officers accountable in Washington state is the requirement that they must be fired for whatever conduct is in question. 

Reicher spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about what he uncovered in his reporting, and what’s being done to improve accountability.

Below are highlights from the interview. Listen to the full conversation above.


What the investigation found: “There are about 11,000 officers across the state, and each year about a hundred officers are fired from their agencies. And within that, about 40 are referred for decertification. So that means their police chief or their sheriff flagged their firing, their separation, and said, 'Hey, state, I want you to review this — this officer and what they did — because I believe it qualifies to be decertified.' So out of that 40, on average, just 10 a year are actually decertified.”

What’s being done about the issues uncovered: “There’s actually some some movement afoot in the state. There's a retired judge named Anne Levinson. She's a former municipal court judge in Seattle and also she's a former oversight official for the Seattle Police Department. She's been working on this since about 2014. She's proposed a number of reforms. And those have made it to state Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd District), who is going to be circulating a bill, a draft bill among stakeholders and also state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has been advocating for some reform. All of this on specifically decertification. It’s one component of a number of reforms that … are trying to hold officers to a higher degree of accountability.”

Why it matters: “It's important because police officers have the ability to take our life and liberty. They are given the authority by the government. And we as citizens have to hold them to the highest degree of accountability. And … this sounds very wonky sometimes and very technical about what qualifies, what doesn't qualify. But at the end of the day, if somebody has really violated the public trust multiple times and the average person can see, on their face, they're not suited to be a police officer, there should be a mechanism to take their badge and gun away. And it should be effective. It shouldn't have so many barriers and obstacles like we found."

Read the full investigation from The Seattle Times

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.