Outside of buckshot Google searches and public records requests, there is no easy way to find out about the bad cops in your state—the police officers who’ve broken the public’s trust and gotten themselves banned from the force. Who are they? What did they do?
What guardrails are in place to prevent those men and women from serving as police officers?
This is where the oft-maligned work of journalists comes into play.
USA Today network reporters compiled a list of more than 30,000 police officers who’ve been decertified in the 44 U.S. states that have such a process on the books. This searchable record is now the most comprehensive nationwide database of police officer decertification.
See the Ohio list here.
Westword—in Denver, Colo.—published a similar overview of the USA Today list in Colorado. I’d like to tip my hat to writer Michael Roberts and replicate the spotlight here in Ohio.
Decertification is a public process that revokes the licenses of officers who have “engaged in serious misconduct,” according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The form of that misconduct often ends up as criminal conviction, but it varies from state to state. USA Today chronicles 391 police officers in Ohio who’ve been decertified. Their offenses range from theft and carrying a concealed weapon to drug trafficking and rape.
The list includes at least 14 Cleveland Police Department officers. (Some of the listed officers’ names do not include a reference to their “last appointing agency.”) Among those, most Cleveland residents will recognize some names—like Gregory Jones, who was convicted of rape and kidnapping in 2014. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
And there’s Robert Bonness, convicted of attempted rape and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison and decertified by the state of Ohio in 2011.
Zvonko Sarlog was sentenced to 10 years in prison—in 2008—for his central role in a Northeast Ohio drug trafficking ring. Sarlog was later decertified in 2017.
Anthony Tuleta is on the list, too. He was convicted of six counts of drug possession and one count of theft; the 8th District Court of Appeals later overturned the ruling and insisted that Tuleta never should have been prosecuted in the first place. In March 2014, he was reinstated as a member of the Cleveland Police Department.
Also on the list, readers will find officers who until recently held positions at the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, the Cuyahoga Community College Police Department, the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority Police Department and a smattering of Northeast Ohio suburban police departments.
But the through-line for the Ohio officers on this list is a criminal conviction. Nothing less.
Even a cursory understanding of current events will lend the assumption that there’s more rot in Ohio law enforcement than the savage crimes listed here. Prosecutions of police officers aren’t often successful, if they’re pursued at all.
The USA Today list is a step toward something more accessible, toward a real sense of scale. (The news organization announced that it has also compiled a list of 85,000 officers who’ve been investigated for misconduct more broadly, which will be published in the future.) The 30,000-some officers documented by the decertification list is but a glimpse into what a national data set might look like—and about half of that total is drawn from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia, anyway. Different state statutes circumscribe decertification differently. There is no national standard, which is why there was nothing like this database until the USA Today group came along and spent time to publish one.
So, what does it mean?
According to the Ohio Revised Code, any defendant who pleads guilty to a felony and who happens to be a police officer is fired and decertified. (The officer must be warned in court and given a chance to reconsider his or her plea.)
“You are hereby advised that conviction of the felony offense to which you are pleading guilty will result in the termination of your employment as a peace officer and in your decertification as a peace officer pursuant to the laws of Ohio.”
If an officer is convicted of a felony at trial or is convicted of a misdemeanor, the court is obliged to send all documentation thereof to the officer’s employers. What happens then is up to the law enforcement agency in question.
That’s Ohio. Every other state is different. Six states don’t even have a decertification statute on the books.
The current attempt at a federally catalogued data set in the U.S. is entirely voluntary.
In May 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a call to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training “to expand its National Decertification Index to serve as the National Register of Decertified Officers with the goal of covering all agencies within the United States and its territories.”
The task force quoted Roger Goldman, a law professor emeritus with Saint Louis University, who said that a national register would effectively treat “police professionals the way states’ licensing laws treat other professionals. If anything, the need for such a system is even more important for law enforcement, as officers have the power to make arrests, perform searches, and use deadly force.”
Did President Donald Trump’s administration pick up the task and run with it?
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions went the opposite way with his departmental oversight, calling into question consent decrees held between the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies around the country. After his forced resignation, successor William Barr has since been a bit busy.
In the midst of high-profile international criminal allegations and investigations in the U.S., the USA Today report is helpful in jerking the focus back to local anxieties.
To what standard are the peace officers in your neighborhood really held?
Timothy Loehmann, in one of the more visible examples, evaded formal charges in 2015 by a Cuyahoga County grand jury in the investigation into the shooting death of Tamir Rice. Loehmann was fired by Cleveland in 2017.
Before that, however, Loehmann had been formally reprimanded by previous higher-ups at the Independence Police Department. (Loehmann was infamously called “weepy” by his superiors, a cause for concern when the subject is handling a gun and tasked with public safety.) He’d been deemed unfit for duty, but only a public records request for Loehmann’s personnel file or a formal background check by another police department that was thinking about hiring him would have told you that at the time. The Cleveland Police Department did neither.
This remains a cautionary tale.
In October 2018, Loehmann withdrew his application to work as a part-time police officer in Bellaire, Ohio. “Hopefully, he will not be hired as a police officer by any other state,” Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, said at a news conference.
In March 2019, the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association filed an appeal to overturn the 2017 firing of Loehmann by the Cleveland Police Department.
Wherever he lands, Loehmann is still certified to work as a police officer in Ohio.
Two days before USA Today published its decertification list, the news organization ran an investigation into the criminal violations of David Cimperman, police chief of Amsterdam, Ohio, a small town of 500 between Steubenville and New Philadelphia. “In 2001,” the reporters write, “he was convicted of a felony for tampering with police radios so that he could make untraceable phone calls. Over the years, he crashed his cruiser five times and left a personnel file strewn with disciplinary violations.”
But Cimperman was never decertified. He was hired as a small-town Ohio police chief in 2015.