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Ohio needs to broaden state oversight of police conduct: editorial

January 16, 2019

Ohio needs to broaden state oversight of police conduct: editorial

In Minnesota, an independent state police licensing board has the authority to review police licenses and discipline police officers throughout the state for violating standards of professional conduct. That includes, as of last year, certain misdemeanor convictions for assault, domestic assault or drunken driving.

In Arizona, the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board has the power, after an administrative law judge ruling, to revoke a police officer’s certification to work for such infractions as sexting, drug use while on duty or driving under the influence. 

But in Ohio it’s a different matter. The Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, housed in the attorney general’s office, primarily oversees police training and other law enforcement training requirements.

Virtually all power to discipline police officers rests in the individual police departments -- where it’s subject to collective-bargaining limitations, including, often, a requirement to go to binding arbitration over impasses regarding discipline. And arbitrators, who work, and get paid, at the pleasure of both sides, can and have reinstated officers fired for excessive force, assaults, domestic violence, sexting and other infractions.

A recent example is Euclid police officer Michael Amiott, who was fired after being caught on video in August 2017 punching a black motorist and slamming his head into the ground. Last October, an arbitrator reinstated him -- with back pay. Amiott, who is white, is now being investigated by federal authorities for a possible hate crime.

The gap in Ohio law also means that police officers fired by one department can still work elsewhere -- as happened with Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, who fired the shots that killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Loehmann was not indicted in that shooting but was fired by the city of Cleveland in 2017 for lying on his job application. Last year, he briefly found part-time employment in the Bellaire, Ohio police department in southeast Ohio’s Belmont County but withdrew from the job after protests mounted.

The only ironclad police-disciplinary exception under Ohio law is for felony convictions, which require a police officer to step down and which render him or her ineligible to serve anywhere in the state.

A cleveland.com investigation of Cleveland police arbitration records found these troubling examples, among others:

*A 12-year Cleveland police detective fired for sexting and other misconduct after he sent thousands of sexually explicit messages to crime victims and sought sexual relationships with them was reinstated by an arbitrator in 2013.

*An 11-year Cleveland police officer fired after stabbing her boyfriend (a registered sex offender) while she was drunk and who then attempted suicide was reinstated by an arbitrator in 2014. She had been charged with a felony in the assault but pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. 

Creating a state oversight process for police certification and discipline wouldn’t usurp local authority on most police discipline but rather would ensure independent oversight of certain types of misconduct, in concert with local law enforcement. 

Nor would it automatically ensure appropriate discipline. A Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation of Minnesota’s Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board found that “hundreds of officers have been convicted of serious offenses in the past 20 years without facing any sort of licensing review or discipline by the state board.” The board -- whose 15 members were all current or former law enforcement officials appointed by the governor, according to the Star Tribune -- upgraded its practices after the paper’s investigation.

Creation of a similar POST board in Ohio would mark an important start in trying to create a more credible oversight and disciplinary process for police misconduct in Ohio. Ohio Lawmakers should look into practices elsewhere and consider creating such a board -- and new Gov. Mike DeWine, the state’s former attorney general, and new state Attorney General Dave Yost should press for such a reform. 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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