Our Database of Troubled Cops, and How You Can Help
USA TODAY just released a database of 30,000 officers. Join us in using this data.
It’s been a big decade for police transparency. Dashcams and body cameras have become the norm. And newsrooms are certainly all-too prepared with a laundry list of documents to request should an officer—or department—land in hot water.
But as much as departments are embracing Robocop technology, the traditional paper trail left by troubled police remains stubbornly stuck in the past.
When an officer makes headlines, it’s a big deal. Naturally, reporters request all sorts of records about his history. We want to know if the officer has ever been the subject of an internal affairs investigation. If he’s been named in a lawsuit. If he’s ever lied on the stand. But by the time the requests are honored, interest tends to have waned.
It’s unsatisfying, to say the least.
Two years ago, a group of USA TODAY editors and reporters had an absurd thought. What if we could have those records before the news happened? What untold stories could we find in getting those records from every law enforcement department in the country? And so they set out to make it happen.
So far, we’ve collected more than 220,000 records detailing the troubles of police, and the collection continues to grow.
The data is already being shared with reporters across the USA TODAY Network of more than 100 newsrooms coast to coast. Now we’re making the same information available to you.
30,000 Decertified Officers
To kick off this effort, we’re releasing a database of the most cut-and-dried cases of troubled cops—30,000 officers from 44 states who were decertified by state oversight agencies. Decertification essentially bans those officers from carrying a badge anywhere in the state.
Their infractions run the gamut. They’ve beaten members of the public, planted evidence, and used their badges to harass women. Others have lied, stolen, dealt drugs, driven drunk, abused spouses, and pursued relationships with minors, among a wide range of other infractions, depending on the aggressiveness of their state’s rules for police behavior.
For years, a private police organization has cobbled the states’ lists of decertifications together into a nationwide clearinghouse and encouraged police agencies to use it for screening new hires. But that list is kept secret from anyone outside law enforcement.
USA TODAY requested the records about banned officers from all 50 states by filing requests under state sunshine laws, obtaining records from 44 states so far. The information includes the officers’ names, the department they were working for when they lost their certification and—in most cases—at least a vague summary of the reasons why.
The list is incomplete because of the absence of records from states like California, which has the largest number of law enforcement officers in the U.S. The level of oversight varies widely from state to state. While Georgia and Florida decertified thousands of police officers for everything from crimes to serious questions about their fitness to serve, other states banned almost none.
Take, for instance, Maryland. Despite being home to the Baltimore Police Department, which regularly has been in the news for criminal behavior by police, only four Maryland officers have been decertified, according to records that cover nearly a decade. Reporters at USA TODAY have been using the decertification data to identify officers banned from the profession in one state who were able to become sworn officers somewhere else. Those found so far include police chiefs and sheriffs.
Consider Richard Pacheco, who lost his certification to be a police officer in Kansas after two criminal convictions and three restraining orders. Still, he became a part-time police chief of two tiny Missouri towns and a campus safety chief at a Kansas college. Pacheco—then the police chief in Holt, Missouri—was convicted in 2003 of disturbing the peace. He blocked a woman’s car and pounded on her windows, according to court records and a report by the television station KCTV. Nevertheless, Pacheco was named police chief in Mosby. In 2011, while off duty, he was arrested after yanking a man from a car at gunpoint. Pachedo said he believed the man to be driving drunk. Pacheco was charged with felony aggravated assault but convicted of the lesser charge of giving a false alarm, a misdemeanor. That incident caused Pacheco to lose his law enforcement license in Kansas, but Missouri allowed him to keep his license there.
Along the way Pacheco accumulated restraining orders from multiple women. One alleged he threatened to kill her and her mother, and two said he attempted to have them arrested on frivolous charges.
“The respondent—due to being a law enforcement officer—believes that he can abuse his lawful powers to get what he wants and that he is above the law,” April Cayce wrote in a 2002 petition seeking a restraining order, which a judge in Platte County, Missouri granted. Mayors in the two towns where Pacheco is now the police chief—Karen Baker of Camden and Jim Lovern of Henrietta—say they were unaware of his prior convictions until being contacted by USA TODAY.
Pacheco did not respond to repeated phone calls and a letter seeking comment.
What You Can Do with the Decertification Records
Pacheco’s just one officer who has kept right on policing despite being decertified. By opening the data and underlying records up to everyone, we hope to make it easier for local journalists and residents to identify officers who might have been banned elsewhere. You can access the information in several ways. First, you can download a CSV that includes the names of all the decertified officers we know about. You can also get the original documents we obtained from each state, which typically amount to complete lists of decertified officers and a few additional details about each case.
Like any data journalist, we suspect you have a healthy skepticism of records from a secondary party. We’re releasing the records behind the data in its original form—just as it came to us from the state agencies responding to our requests. Most often that means a downloadable list of decertified officers and additional details—exactly as it was provided to us. And, journalists brainstorming other story ideas, reach out to us. We’re looking to partner on good stories, including sharing raw cuts of data and records we’ve not yet released.
There are several ways you can use these decertification records to find local stories:
See how your department stacks up. If we have records from your state, you can find out how many officers have been decertified in your coverage area. That could be compared to similar departments in terms of size or geography. One potential takeaway from that could be: is your department informing state oversight bodies of misconduct?
Catch up to your decertified officers. I live in Omaha, Nebraska, and looking over the nine results here gives me a who’s who of some of the most high-profile police fails of the past decade. It includes a former officer who solicited a minor online, one who seized a phone after a fracas involving other officers, and another who repeatedly tased a handcuffed man. I’d read a “Where are they now?” involving any or all.
Compare the national data to your current police rolls. As we found, many officers are decertified in one state but continue to have careers in others. We usually do not have enough information to make a clear identification one way or another; it’s a starting point that can be run down with additional reporting. And some states’ records do provide additional details that would make such a match easier.
We’re sure there are other stories in this data, which is why we’re so excited to get it in your hands and see what you can find.
How You Can Help
The decertification data is just the tip of the iceberg. We started there because it’s the biggest dataset we have, and represents the most easily defined universe. We will release other, similar datasets as we are able to get them clean enough to be publicly useful. Our hope, however, is that this is the first step of what we think could be an enormously useful resource for local reporters everywhere.
Our goal is as simple as it is audacious: create a nationwide, comprehensive, accessible, brazenly transparent collection of data about police misconduct.
So far, we’ve collected records from more than 700 law enforcement agencies, focusing largely on the 100 largest police departments as well as clusters of smaller departments in surrounding areas. That’s a dent, but there are more than 18,000 police forces across the U.S.
There’s still more work to be done, and that’s where we’d love your help.
We couldn’t have gotten this far without help from the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit newsroom in Chicago focused on police accountability, which has contributed records from dozens of agencies.
Having other newsrooms to join in, forming a sort of police transparency consortium, would dramatically increase the power and impact of this process. If you can get discipline or conduct records from a state or department not reflected in our data, we’d love to add it to what we’ve already released. If you have story ideas—about anything you can dream up related to police misconduct—we’re confident the power of this data-and-records trove can help make it happen.
Going forward, we’d also love to have help adding to the collection in general. If you have access to citizen complaints about police, internal affairs investigation records, secret settlement deals between agencies and departing officers, or anything that sheds light on how agencies police their officers, we want to hear from you. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see how we can team up to make this happen.
Matt Wynn is a data reporter at USA Today, living the good life in flyover country.