Scottsdale, Arizona, police officer Alan Blume answered what should have been a routine call to investigate a domestic violence complaint. Instead, he lost his job and his right to be a police officer in Arizona.
The reason: Blume had sex with the alleged victim, and the state board that oversees police officers in Arizona decided that sort of conduct was grounds to revoke Blume’s police certification, essentially a license to be a police officer. The decertification also prevented Blume from simply moving to another police department in the state.
In Hawaii, there’s no such statewide safety net. Even if an officer is fired, there’s nothing to prevent the officer from moving to another department. Hawaii is the only state without a state standards and training board, although a few other states also don’t have licensing programs.
Former Hawaii cop Ethan Ferguson was fired from the Honolulu Police Department for inappropriate behavior involving a juvenile female runaway. He was later hired by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement arm but got into trouble again, this time accused of sexually assaulting a young woman he’d detained. Ferguson was recently convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The victim has filed a lawsuit against the state.
But Hawaii’s situation could soon change. Lawmakers are considering legislation to establish a statewide standards board with a certification component.
And Hawaii’s board could well look a lot like Arizona’s, with the power to keep bad cops fired from one department from simply jumping to another.
House Bill 2071 has passed one committee and is scheduled for a hearing in House Finance on Thursday.
The bill makes some aspects of creating a statewide board clear. The new board would be required to adopt minimum standards for employment, including establishing a criminal justice training curriculum. The board also would come up with criteria needed to certify an officer, or revoke the certification if warranted.
The bill also specifies some misconduct that would merit revoking a license. That includes omitting information on the officer’s employment application, interfering with a board investigation, or committing a felony, for example.
But similar to Arizona’s statute, Hawaii’s law would leave it up to the board to create many of the rules.
Officer Blume’s case was one of eight the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board had on its agenda for its monthly meeting in October. The board consists of officials from half a dozen police and sheriff’s offices, two from the state corrections and public safety departments, an assistant attorney general and a university professor.
According to the agenda, the board spent the bulk of the two-hour meeting dealing with officer certifications — deciding whether to revoke officer certifications and whether to open new cases charging officers, the first step toward decertifying.
The criteria for discipline are spelled out in Arizona’s administrative rules. The rules let the board decertify a police officer for offenses ranging from committing any felony to possessing weed or drinking alcohol on the job.
Catch-all provisions include anything considered malfeasance or “engaging in any conduct or pattern of conduct that tends to disrupt, diminish, or otherwise jeopardize public trust in the law enforcement profession.”
By the time cases get to the board, they’ve already been investigated and been through a hearing before an administrative law judge, said Jack Lane, the Arizona POST board’s executive director.
The administrative judges issue findings of fact and conclusions, but the board has the discretion to “look at the totality of the circumstances” when deciding what action to take, Lane said.
Still, Lane noted that the board also follows precedent, so if something has come up before, the board has an established way of dealing with it.
“If you were intoxicated while on duty, you’re going to lose your certification,” Lane said.
One case the board reviewed in October involved Jaime Guerrero, an Arizona state trooper. Guerrero had been caught by his wife on his hands and knees holding his phone under the bathroom door to videotape his 14-year-old stepdaughter while she showered. His wife called the police, whose investigation found Guerrero had been secretly taking photos and videos of the girl in the bathroom and her bedroom for months. The board decertified Guerrero.
In another case, Aaron Tarter, a recruit, was denied certification from the beginning. Tarter had been in a training session where recruits were advised that police throughout the country were being scrutinized for shooting unarmed black suspects.
Tarter responded by asking “How else were officers to have target practice?” the board’s compliance manager reported.
The board decided not to let Tarter become a police officer.
Blume, the Scottsdale officer, hadn’t done anything illegal; there were no allegations of sexual harassment or assault. And there’s no administrative rule specifically saying Arizona cops can’t have sex with crime victims while on duty.
But Lane said the charge falls under the rules against malfeasance and unbecoming conduct. In the end, Blume lost his right to be a cop in Arizona.
Roger Goldman, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law who studies police standards boards, says Hawaii’s proposed legislation is a start. But he points to a number of shortcomings.
“We really don’t know what it’s going to look like” until gaps are filled in, either in the bill itself or rules, which the board would adopt later, Goldman said.
And he has major concerns about certain provisions in Hawaii’s bill.
“If they pass this, they’re no longer trailing the pack.” — Roger Goldman, police standards board expert
Goldman questions one of the bill’s provisions in particular. Although the measure says the board may revoke the certification of convicted felons, it carves out an exception if the felony was committed before the officer was hired and disclosed before the hiring. In that case, the board could decertify the officer only with permission of the department that hired the officer, as the bill stands now.
Goldman says it makes no sense to let felons serve as police officers. For one thing, Hawaii state law prohibits felons from carrying firearms, so a felon couldn’t really serve as a full-fledged officer. Likewise, federal law imposes the same prohibition on people convicted of misdemeanors involving domestic violence, Goldman points out.
Still, Goldman agreed that Hawaii’s bill would put the Aloha State ahead of states like California and Massachusetts in terms of police accountability.
“If they pass this, they’re no longer trailing the pack,” he said.