KY3 News has been investigating confidential settlements between police departments and citizens who have accused officers of wrongdoing. We started looking at this issue after learning about two confidential settlements by the City of Branson. Both settlements came after allegations of wrongdoing involving the same police officer. The officer still holds a valid state police license to this day.
Before you can pierce an ear, a tongue, or provide most other professional services, you're required to get a license in the State of Missouri. That includes barbers like Clint McLemore of Style Barber Shop.
"You can lose your license for major gross negligence," said McLemore.
Police officers carry state licenses and can lose them after investigations that start with complaints about their conduct. One traffic stop in Branson, which was recorded on a police car dash camera, led to a $30,000 confidential settlement for alleged excessive force. A separate allegation of a false arrest by the same officer led to another confidential settlement.
The Missouri Peace Officers Standards and Training Program, or POST, is in charge of reviewing allegations of misconduct by police officers to see whether they should retain their state licenses. Because of the secretive nature of the process, three years later, we don't know if a POST review has or has not been held on the now-former Branson officer.
POST sent notification letters to 382 law enforcement agencies in the last two years. POST warned those 382 agencies, including the Ash Grove Police Department, the Springfield Police Department and the Wright County Sheriff's Department, that the departments had given POST late notification of an officer's departure or late notification of disciplinary action.
That widespread problem is the same thing that a 2005 state audit found happening with the Peace Officer Standards and Training Program. The audit says police chiefs are supposed to notify the agency within 30 days if an officer is subject to discipline or under investigation.
"Our tests also found that this notification requirement was not consistently followed," the auditors wrote in 2005.
The basic question here is when a law enforcement officer should lose his or her state license. There's almost complete agreement that, if there's a criminal conviction for wrongdoing, the officer should lose that license. A gray area of the state standards is when there's a confidential settlement of a lawsuit or formal complaint. Those settlements often include language just like this: "This should not be construed as an admission of any liability . . . No admission of any wrongdoing."
We recently traveled to Saint Louis University and talked to two of the men who pushed for a Missouri law to require police officers to be licensed. We showed them the video of the Branson traffic stop.
Clarence Harmon, a former St. Louis mayor and police chief, reacted this way after seeing the video, which included the officer taking the driver out of the vehicle.
"Just issue him a summons and be gone. Get him out of the vehicle for what?" asked Harmon.
Both Harmon and Roger Goldman, a former dean of the Saint Louis University Law School, believe this is the type of incident that should be reported to the commission that reviews police licenses.
"If there's reasonable suspicion of decertifiable conduct, you've got to tell the POST," said Goldman.
"I think there ought not to be confidential settlements," said Harmon. "It needs to be discussed before the public. What happened here? Why did we pay?"
They're not alone. Another former St. Louis police chief believes incidents like this one should be reported and reviewed in a reasonable time frame.
"There might need to be a little more teeth in the rules in terms of guidance," said David Isom.
"I would either change the law or interpret the law as is. Everybody could say this and completely get away with the whole purpose of having a POST," said Goldman.
Because of the confidentiality clause, the parties directly involved in this case, have not talked to us. The POST Commission would not disclose whether a review has happened.
To be clear, none of the people to whom we talked say the officer in the video should lose his license without a fair hearing. They're saying incidents like this one should be reported to the state and then reviewed right away.
The former Branson officer is an inactive reserve with the Christian County Sheriff's Department. The Christian County sheriff says, because of his lack of participation in the reserve program, he will likely be dropped as a reserve in the coming months.
Meantime, a spokesman for POST said Wednesday that the agency believes the Branson Police Department made the required notifications to the state in a timely manner.