During the past few weeks, the broadest national protests in U.S. history have centered on racism and police violence. In a new paper in the Yale Law Journal, Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport provide important context for contemporary discussions of policing, focusing on the phenomenon of “wandering officers,” law enforcement officers who are fired from one agency only to be rehired by another.

Using a novel data set of some 98,000 full-time law enforcement officers in Florida covering about 500 unique agencies over a 30-year period, Grunwald and Rappaport find wandering officers are relatively common — and they are far more likely than other officers to subsequently be fired or receive misconduct complaints.

In a recent interview, which has been edited and condensed, Grunwald and Rappaport discuss their findings.

NL & MJ: What did your data set reveal?

BG: We have four principal findings. First, during any given year, there are about 1,100 full-time law enforcement officers working in Florida who had been previously fired from other Florida agencies — that’s roughly 3 percent of all full-time law enforcement officers working in the state. Second, police officers who are fired tend to get rehired by another agency within three years. Third, officers who’ve been fired and land another job tend to move to smaller agencies with fewer resources and slightly larger communities of color. Finally, when a wandering officer gets hired by a new agency, they tend to get fired about twice as often as other officers and are more likely to receive “moral character violations,” both in general and for physical and sexual misconduct.

NL & MJ: If wandering officers are so risky, why do agencies keep hiring them?

BG: One possibility is a lack of knowledge — maybe they didn’t run a background check, or they ran a background check, and it wasn’t effective. There are state-level and even national decertification databases, but there are big holes in these databases that make it hard to get all the information you need.

Another possibility is that police departments know they're hiring wandering officers, but they're not aware of the risk of doing so. And a final possibility is that they know they're hiring wandering officers, they know that they're risky, and they're doing it anyway. That could be because law-enforcement agencies are highly immunized from legal liability. And, as we've seen in the past few weeks, there can be a band-of-brothers ethos among police officers, where they feel that they are duty bound to unconditionally support each other.

NL & MJ: Why are wandering officers moving to smaller, more financially strapped agencies?

JR: This relates to one additional reason that agencies might be hiring wandering officers, which is that they may, in some cases, feel like the wandering officer they hired was the best available option. They may have gotten a small pool of applicants, and they might have decided that the guy who was fired from his last job was still better than the other choices. That hypothesis is consistent with the pattern of movement you just mentioned, the idea that officers are moving to more resource-strapped agencies that may not have the ability to offer attractive salaries and benefits and to attract a large pool of great applicants. To some extent, because of the way that race and socioeconomics run together in our country, it’s not surprising that those are also agencies in communities with slightly higher populations of color, but we should caution that while the difference in racial makeup is statistically significant, it’s substantively small.

NL& MJ: How might reformers respond?

JR: Any reform proposal would have to be tailored to the reasons for the phenomenon. One potential reason is an information deficit. Police departments may not have access to background information about the officers they’re hiring, and in some cases that’s going to be because states don’t have databases that contain information about officers who were fired. And then there are holes in the national decertification index as well. The new bill that Congress just proposed seems to have provisions that are directly responsive to this problem.

Another possible explanation is that the chiefs doing the hiring don't realize how risky wandering officers are, or maybe they think that an officer who has just been fired will try to be on his best behavior. Our findings go a long way toward disproving that hypothesis, so some of this is just an education campaign. There are also more drastic measures on the table. Connecticut, for example, has prohibited law-enforcement agencies from hiring officers who have previously been fired. That's a nuclear option for states, which would have to be done along with data collection that allows you to identify when you're about to hire a wandering officer in the first place.

NL & MJ: What open questions still exist in this area?

JR: One important issue is the phenomenon of officers being fired by an agency and then rehired by the very same agency. Our definition of wandering officer excludes these cases, but there are a substantial number of cases in which officers are fired and then rehired by the same agency. We know from anecdotal evidence and from journalistic accounts that labor arbitration is playing a big role here, and that when officers who are protected by strong collective bargaining agreements are fired, there’s a set of grievance procedures that they can use to challenge their termination. That usually lands them in front of a labor arbitrator, and labor arbitrators often rule in favor of officers and order them to be reinstated. There’s no academic research about this, or about the behavior of those officers after they’re reinstated, and that’s something we hope to study.

Nikita Lalwani is a 2020 graduate of Yale Law School. Mitchell Johnston is a 2020 graduate of Yale Law School. Both were editors on the Yale Law Journal.