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Tioga, Pennsylvania police controversy illustrates need for better background checks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to the borough of Tioga, Pa., where officials hired a police officer, and then word spread of the officer's past. He was a former Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Now, the officer has quit his new job, and so have four people involved in hiring him. They've quit, too. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The crowd at the borough meeting on Tuesday was ready for those resignations. They were furious that officials had been either ignorant or indifferent about their newly hired cop's past.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: You risked the public safety by allowing that officer to be hired.

KASTE: Stephanie Pawlowski was one of the residents appalled by the hire and the notoriety that it generated for their small community.

STEPHANIE PAWLOWSKI: If we want to go into the negative national attention and the divide that it has caused our community, that's pretty powerful, too.

KASTE: But what's interesting about the debacle in Tioga is that it shows just how much more pressure there is now on police departments to do better background checks. And it seems a lot of departments are getting that message.

MIKE BECAR: Well, in the past year, we've seen significant growth.

KASTE: That's Mike Becar, who runs the National Decertification Index. It's a privately run national database of people who've lost their license to be police officers in their home states because of misconduct. The idea is to prevent them from becoming what's known as wandering officers, decertified cops who cross state lines to find other police jobs. The NDI has been around for two decades, but Becar says just recently he's seeing a lot more police departments using it.

BECAR: A little over a year ago, we had about 3,000 background investigators that had access. And right now, it's over 6,000, so it's significantly jumped.

KASTE: This seems to be a direct result of the police reform movement since 2020. Several states have passed new laws requiring more complete background checks for new officers, and that often means checking the NDI for problems in other states. Still, procedures are hardly the same everywhere. In Kansas, Doug Schroeder runs the state's Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training. He's also a former police chief. And he says people might be surprised about how much variation there is between police departments when they're hiring.

DOUG SCHROEDER: Some utilize a polygraph or a voice stress analyzer. Some don't. Some do different sorts of testing and that sort of thing. It is vastly different department from department.

KASTE: So when it comes to checking whether someone is a wandering cop with a black mark in another state, he says he's glad to see that the NDI is becoming standard procedure. His commission is trying to tell more departments about it, especially small departments, but he's hoping his state will also just make it mandatory. This year, he worked on legislation with state Senator Cindy Holscher.

CINDY HOLSCHER: You hate to legislate for things like this, but if, you know, a hiring agency knows this is something they have to do then it'll get done.

KASTE: That bill did not pass, but she says she'll try again next year.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.