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When new officials took on the oversight of Arkansas law enforcement officers under Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders early this year, they made keeping bad cops off the street a focus.
They said they adopted new processes and safeguards intended to prevent problem officers from hopping from department to department and have even looked at individuals who may have slipped through the cracks in the past.
But Arkansas remains one of 15 states that keep the identities of its officers private, making public oversight near impossible.
The Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training denied several Advocate public records requests for data from its database of certified law enforcement officers in the state.
The database containing names and information about all Arkansas officers also has private information that is exempt from disclosure, according to commission officials.
Further, spokespeople and attorneys at the agency said that disclosing the names of all the state’s officers could lead to the identification of those working undercover.
Meanwhile, more than 30 other states have made redactions or organized officer certification data in a way that it can be released to a group of news organizations across the U.S. — including Arkansas’ neighbors Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri.
High levels of transparency lead to high levels of perceived legitimacy and compliance and collaboration with police. When members of the public have higher levels of trust with the police, they are more likely to help and collaborate on any number of issues.
– Dave Tyler, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Police and transparency experts have also cast doubts on the argument that releasing comprehensive certification data would compromise the identities of undercover officers and their investigations.
The data is important because in other states where such databases are disclosed reporters and researchers have found gaps in state oversight that allowed problem officers to be shuffled to school district departments and passed around tiny suburban departments. Officers have continued to work in law enforcement even after criminal convictions, reporters have revealed after accessing the data in other states that Arkansas refuses to release.
The Advocate began requesting Arkansas law enforcement certification data earlier this year in collaboration with a coalition of news organizations across the country convened by Big Local News, a program of Stanford University’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative.
The efforts are an attempt to compile robust datasets of certified law enforcement officers to track the prevalence of wandering officers — or cops who are fired or found to have committed misconduct at one agency before going to work at a different law enforcement agency.
The issue of wandering officers was brought to the forefront in Arkansas last year when a viral video of a suspect being beaten as three officers arrested him in Northwest Arkansas made national headlines.
One of the officers, Thell Riddle of the Mulberry Police Department, was previously fired from one department after a pair of domestic disturbances and forced to resign from another after a series of problems.
Another officer involved in the viral arrest, former Crawford County Deputy Zack King, had been reprimanded six times, including twice for being too aggressive with inmates.
In another stark example of wandering officers in Arkansas, an officer convicted of negligent homicide after shooting and killing a suspect in 2010 became the police chief in a neighboring town three years later.
Without comprehensive data, citizens can only judge the scale of the wandering officer problem by anecdotes, said Dave Tyler, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“There is a lot of value in having this level of transparency with our criminal justice system, not just from a political and philosophical standpoint but from a functional standpoint,” he said. “High levels of transparency lead to high levels of perceived legitimacy and compliance and collaboration with police. When members of the public have higher levels of trust with the police, they are more likely to help and collaborate on any number of issues.”
The director of the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training (CLEST), Chris Chapmond, also recently acknowledged that wandering officers can be a problem without a strong decertification process.
He told members of the Hot Springs Rotary Club that as long as an officer remains certified, even if they were fired or behaved inappropriately, there will always be a department willing to hire them because of the shortage of certified officers in the state.
Since Chapmond, a former Hot Springs police chief, took over early this year, the agency has “adopted improved processes” related to officer certification, said Cindy Murphy, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Public Safety, which houses CLEST.
“CLEST quickly adopted improved processes to keep individuals who aren’t fit to wear a badge from serving in law enforcement roles in Arkansas,” Murphy said. “Newly adopted safeguards prevent officers who fail to meet standards from leaving one local agency only to take their problematic behavior to another agency.”
The agency reviews every instance an officer leaves a department, voluntarily or by termination, to determine if decertification proceedings should be started, and it has implemented new protocols requiring agencies to contact the department if they want to hire officers under consideration for decertification. (Similar approaches in other states haven’t been entirely effective, particularly when local agencies fail to properly report separations, new hires and misconduct.)
“CLEST Director Chris Chapmond took office in January with a clear mandate to conduct a deep-dive evaluation of the entire operation and to correct all systemic weaknesses he identified,” Public Safety Secretary Mike Hagar said. “And he’s done just that.”
Policing experts said in interviews that such steps shouldn’t prevent the state from being transparent with its data. “It’s hard to imagine data that would be more important or relevant for the public to have,” said Christy Lopez, a former Department of Justice official who led the federal investigations into the Ferguson and Chicago Police Departments, “and where the state would have less of an argument that that information shouldn’t be shared.”
In denying the Advocate’s request for certification data, the law enforcement standards commision has relied, in part, on an exemption in Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act related to the identities of undercover officers. A state Supreme Court decision last year using that exemption found that requiring the release of photos of state troopers could allow requesters to identify undercover officers, by determining whose photo is and isn’t released across subsequent requests.
“We apply this analysis to similar requests, such as a request for information on ‘all certified officers’. By leaving out the names of the undercover officers, one could effectively cross reference the list of those provided with the Arkansas Transparency website, for example, and determine who is undercover,” Tess Bradford, an attorney representing the DPS, wrote in an email.
“Obviously, by indirectly releasing the names of the undercover officers, we run the risk of not only jeopardizing the integrity of ongoing investigations, but also jeopardizing the safety of those officers working undercover.”
However, that case, which was broadly criticized by public records experts, centered around a request for photographs of officers. CLEST’s application of the same logic to a request only for names extends the impact of the case even further, legal experts said.
John Tull, a Little Rock attorney who specializes in media and public records law, noted that releasing officer names is much different than releasing photographs.
Arkansas’ arguments about cross-referencing databases to find undercover officers — echoed by other states denying access to this data — is an example of a legal theory known as the “mosaic theory.”
The theory puts forth that disparate, seemingly innocuous pieces of information could be combined, by the right adversary, for nefarious purposes. The theory has roots in federal government responses to requests made for information about intelligence-gathering, but its use has become widespread among police departments denying requests for records about surveillance technologies.
These denials are “obstructionist,” according to Chris Burbank — not based on actual potential harm that could befall officers. Burbank is a former Salt Lake City police chief who is now a law enforcement strategy consultant for the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that uses data to advocate for police reform.
The deep undercover policing that CLEST’s denial seems to anticipate just doesn’t happen anymore.
“When you look at these officers that they claim are undercover, they’ve been in uniform assignments the year before, or there’ll be a uniform assignment a year from now, and their names are already a part of the record,” he said in an interview.
Further, Burbank said undercover officers don’t use their real names: “Any undercover officer who’s using their true identity is not really undercover.”
Regardless of the reason, restricting access to the comprehensive officer certification data leaves the public in the dark, legal experts, researchers and advocates said.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Tyler, the UALR professor, said of Arkansas. “All we have is anecdotal evidence about officers bouncing from place to place.
When data has been released elsewhere, the evidence is clear: Officers fired for misconduct are regularly rehired elsewhere and more likely than their peers to find controversy.
In Arkansas, the public doesn’t have the full picture.
“That’s where this type of state level database could really benefit these types of questions,” Tyler said. “We just straight up don’t know how widespread these anecdotes are.”
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.