Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley propose creating a national database of cops with a record of misconduct

If a police officer behaves badly in one place, new legislation would let police departments elsewhere — and the US public — know all about it.

“We can’t legislate away racism or wave a wand to change culture,” US Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, said Friday, “but we can make sure that there are mechanisms in place to hold people accountable for wrongdoing.”

The National Police Misconduct Database and Transparency in Hiring Act, introduced by Merkley with support from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, calls for creating a publicly searchable repository of law enforcement officers who engaged in misconduct. That includes the inappropriate use of force or discrimination.

Human Rights Watch called for such a database more than two decades ago, arguing that a misconduct tracking system would help “prevent officers who have committed abuses and have been dismissed from one department from being hired as law enforcement officers elsewhere.” 

As Warren argued, “This national database of police misconduct should already exist.”

The problem is not theoretical.

As USA Today reported last year, police who are disgraced in one jurisdiction may not just end up as regular beat cops elsewhere. The news organization — without the help of a national database — uncovered 32 people “who became police chiefs or sheriffs despite a finding of serious misconduct, usually at another department.” Some had records of domestic violence, for example, while others improperly withheld evidence.

A searchable database would allow members of the public to verify for themselves whether a local police officer meets their community’s standards. It could be, according to Merkley, “a critical tool for accountability — one of many reforms we need to honor the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others who should be with us today.”