Bad officers let go due to misconduct moving easily to new departments, sheriff says

Oakland County sheriff believes bad cops can move easily between departments

One of Michigan's top police officers said enough isn't being done to weed out bad cops. Instead, problem officers move from department to department when something goes wrong.

Many agencies don't share information when they fire an officer, which allows the officer to get hired again somewhere else. It's happened dozens of times in Metro Detroit and can put all of the state's citizens at risk.

When police get in trouble on the job for roughing up a citizen, drug and alcohol abuse or insensitive racial or sexist remarks, they are often given a choice: They can resign or be fired.

Many officers choose to walk away, and they end up right back on the beat at a new police department, where nobody is aware of their past bad behavior.

"They're unaffectionately called gypsy cops," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. "Where they move around and sometimes the hiring agency doesn't have any knowledge of the background."

Bouchard said dozens of Metro Detroit cops have been forced out or fired only to end up across town patrolling streets and interacting with the public, potentially putting citizens at risk.

"Absolutely, it's common," Bouchard said. "It's especially common in certain kinds of communities that may be financially stressed. Where they don't maybe have the resources to do some of the backgrounds."

In 2015, Inkster police Officer William Melendez was arrested, charged and sent to prison for beating motorist Flody Dent after a traffic stop.

"I thought he was going to kill me," Dent said.

Before Melendez was an Inkster officer, he worked in Detroit. He left the Detroit Police Department after multiple lawsuits and a federal indictment were filed against him for roughing up citizens and tampering with evidence.

Melendez tried to get a job at the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, but a background check raised multiple red flags. A short time later, Melendez was hired in Highland Park and Inkster as a police officer.

"To pin a badge on that person's chest after what had transpired at a different agency was a recipe for disaster," Bouchard said. "Those are the kinds of high-profile cases, exactly what that speaks to. When those things happen once, they should not be allowed to happen again."

"Why should the police be immune from that?" attorney Greg Rholl said. "They should have some oversight mechanism."

Rholl is Dent's attorney, and he said his client settled the lawsuit for $1.3 million -- money the taxpayers in the financially troubled city of Inkster had to pay.

"We pushed three buttons on Google and found all the information we need to scare us, and to say, 'What was he doing on the police force?'" Rholl said.

Residents said they were shocked to hear that many small police departments can't afford to do background checks.

"They definitely should do a background check," said Gwendolyn Davis, of Westland. "You don't know what you're hiring."

The problem is even bigger. Michigan police agencies that force an officer to resign often refuse to tell other agencies why they parted ways with the cop out of fear they will be sued.

Bouchard supports a new Senate bill that would force police agencies to create and keep records of why each police officer left, and would make departments immune from civil lawsuits for sharing the information.

Some said they would like to see even more accountability. In Michigan, it's not permitted to have prospective employees take a polygraph test. Some officials believe before they are hired, applicants should be quizzed on past crimes, lawsuits and firings while hooked up to a lie detector.

"When I became a police officer I took a polygraph test," Bouchard said. "A lie detector. Why would you prohibit that?"

It's also prohibited to look at applicants' private social media accounts. Agencies could learn a lot about a prospective officer by what they post, but the law only allows employers to look at public accounts, not those with privacy settings.

"I would like to know that the people who are looking over the city, that I can trust them," said Jaclyn Rey, of Whitmore Lake.

Senate Bill 223 is in the House. If it passes, it will go to the governor for consideration. Law enforcement experts said the bill would be a good first step, but much more still needs to be done.


About the Authors:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.