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Kansas Cities Allowed to Hire Police With Little Vetting

“It all comes back to being thorough. Background investigators need to be trained in specifically doing a background investigation because it’s not like every other investigation,” said John Letteney, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Kansas City Police Department captain and 24-year veteran of the force didn’t balk at taking a nearly $56,000 annual pay cut. He wasn’t turned off by leaving a Missouri department with more than 1,000 officers to lead a Kansas department with just five. And he didn’t mind moving from the big city to a rural town of about 1,900 residents.

None of that proved too convenient – or too suspicious – for Marion’s city council, which appointed him chief in May.

A few months later, Cody’s decision to raid the local newspaper turned him into one of the most well-known police chiefs in America and placed a spotlight on a career at the KCPD headed toward possible discipline and demotion over alleged insulting and sexist comments before he left for Marion.

“I did not conduct a full or official background investigation,” Marion council member Zach Collett said at a recent council meeting, adding that he took it upon himself to look into Cody as the council searched for a chief this spring while lacking a city administrator.

Collett said he had shared with his fellow council members what he was able to find, but acknowledged “it’s been inferred that I should have found more.”

While Cody’s search of the newspaper has drawn national attention to Marion and the process that led to his hiring, an investigation by The Star found gaps in Kansas’ safeguards for identifying and weeding out problematic officers. These weaknesses continue to allow individuals under suspicion of misconduct or questionable behavior to slip into new jobs and apparent fresh starts.

The Star spoke with 20 current and former law enforcement officials, local leaders, policing experts and lawmakers. Those interviews reveal Kansas has taken steps to prevent officers from withholding damaging information but doesn’t mandate local leaders thoroughly vet officers before sending them out into communities.

This is the second story in “Broken Government,” an occasional series from The Star investigating failures in all levels of government in Kansas and Missouri. The first installment examined how small towns in both states are susceptible to financial fraud and mismanagement.

While reforms in recent years have expanded the amount of information available on police officers, Kansas places few requirements on municipalities to actually access this information – let alone factor it in when making a hiring decision. In turn, the lack of thorough background checks allows officers to keep troubling details hidden.

“It all comes back to being thorough. Background investigators need to be trained in specifically doing a background investigation because it’s not like every other investigation,” said John Letteney, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the police chief of Thomasville, Georgia.

Kansas police departments aren’t required to review the past personnel files of officers applying for jobs. And while law enforcement agencies must file a report every time an officer ends their employment that describes the circumstances of the departure, nothing requires departments to review those reports before hiring an officer, unlike in Missouri, which mandates agencies request a copy.

Police departments are not required to run applicants through a national database that tracks officers who have been decertified by other states – a precaution that prevents officers kicked out of the profession in one area of the country from simply starting over somewhere else. While state officials do use the database, their searches only come after a hire has been made.

Legislation to require police departments to review officer records and search the database has gone nowhere.

Other factors may also lead cities and police departments to not dig too deeply into applicants. Like many professions, police departments are also struggling to recruit and retain employees. The applicant pool may be especially limited in small towns, which often lack significant human resources operations capable of conducting deep vetting of job candidates.

Kansas had about 8,244 law enforcement officers as of July, down from about 8,300 two years ago. Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said police departments of all sizes are facing staffing crises.

“Will that have an impact on hiring? Probably. Should it have an impact on hiring? Absolutely not if you’re looking to hold people to a higher standard,” Wexler said. “Hiring a bad police officer from another agency can be a time bomb waiting to happen.”

Some Kansas municipalities have gone into the hiring process knowing an applicant had a controversial background – and made the hire anyway.

Liberal, a southwest Kansas town of about 19,800, in January hired Wichita Police Department Deputy Chief Chester Pinkston as its police chief. An internal Wichita report had blamed Pinkston and other high-ranking officers for their roles in mishandling the discipline of officers who sent racist text messages. The report recommended Pinkston receive extensive training and be evaluated to determine whether he was fit to serve as a deputy chief in Wichita.

Pinkston went from overseeing hundreds of officers in Wichita, the largest police department in Kansas, to 42 in Liberal, about a 3 ½ hour drive from Wichita. He also took a $3,000 pay cut.

Pinkston and another deputy chief have alleged bribery and corruption at Wichita City Hall and have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city and city officials of retaliation, a hostile work environment and violations of their constitutional rights. Wichita is asking to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the lawsuit doesn’t state a claim upon which relief can be granted and that the city is entitled to qualified immunity.

“Wichita PD polices on a much more advanced level than most other cities and the opportunity to snag that was I think very, very valuable,” said Liberal city manager Rusty Varnado, who praised Pinkston’s character and said he had been impressed by his performance so far.

Stories like Pinkston’s are partly why law enforcement is skeptical of imposing additional statewide mandates on police departments that are hiring. Ed Klumpp, a retired Topeka police chief and a longtime lobbyist for Kansas law enforcement associations, said he worried about a one-size-fits-all policy for hiring.

Just because an officer was investigated or fired at their previous department, Klumpp said, does not mean they’re a bad candidate.

“You have to know what was going on and what those events were,” Klumpp said.

Finding ‘Wandering Cops’

Troubled officers who go from department to department to evade scrutiny are often called “wandering cops.” How many of these officers exist is difficult to measure – by their very nature their problems go undetected unless they’re caught.

Researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago, reviewing 33 years of Florida law enforcement records, found that on average 3% of officers working in the state had been previously fired, according to a 2020 Yale Law Journal article. Officers who were fired from their last job seemed to have difficulty finding work, and when they did they tended to move to smaller agencies.

Cedar Vale offers perhaps the most high-profile example of a “wandering cop” incident in Kansas. In 2005, Cedar Vale, a town of about 275 near the Oklahoma border, hired Sean Sullivan as police chief after he had been caught kissing a 10-year-old girl on the mouth in Oregon. Sullivan was later investigated for a relationship with a teenage girl while in Cedar Vale.

Sullivan’s case helped spur adoption of the National Decertification Index, a national non-public database that contains the names of officers who have been stripped of their certifications.

The 22-year-old registry is maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which allows police departments to search the database before making hiring decisions. The association even included the Sullivan case on a brochure for the NDI to tout its importance.

But 18 years after the Sullivan episode in Kansas, only about 60 of the more than 350 law enforcement agencies in the state use the tool, said Doug Schroeder, director of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, or KSCPOST.

“I believe it’s still somewhat unknown in the law enforcement communities,” Schroeder said.

Bonner Springs Police Chief William Naff said that while his department doesn’t use the National Decertification Index, the agency does check with the commission on prospective employees and deploys polygraph tests and other tools to investigate applicants. He said Bonner Springs is “very extensive in our backgrounds compared to some of our counterparts.”

“When we do have questions, we work closely with CPOST investigators to determine if there is any potential risk of loss of certification and if so, we do not proceed with a hiring decision,” Naff said in an email.

In Kansas, agencies are required to report newly hired officers to the commission within 30 days. The commission, which certifies officers and can revoke their certifications for misconduct, then conducts its own search of the database. All Kansas law enforcement officers must be certified, meaning they meet certain minimum qualifications, including being a U.S. citizen, having no felony convictions, graduating from high school and passing a psychological evaluation.

“Unfortunately, I think that says to some agencies I don’t need to check because I know K-CPOST is going to check it,” Schroeder said. “My pushback on that is that’s just after you’ve hired somebody. You need to find out that information before you make the job offer. So yes, maybe we can catch somebody from going into law enforcement but it’s more about preventing it upfront.”

While the National Decertification Index can weed out officers who have been stripped of their ability to be a police officer, eliminating the most severely tarnished applicants, including individuals convicted of crimes, it doesn’t help agencies pick out officers with troubled records that fall short of decertification.

For that, Kansas offers hiring departments substantial access to information on applicants – if they’re willing to look.

State law requires applicants to sign waivers allowing departments to access their personnel records from any previous law enforcement employers. Kansas law enforcement agencies that have previously employed an applicant are also required to hand over the records. The rule preempts any non-disclosure agreements made by police departments after July 1, 2018, meaning agencies cannot enter into contracts to shield an officer’s files.

When an officer leaves employment at a law enforcement agency, for whatever reason, the agency must report the change to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training within 30 days. The form requires the agency to explain the departure and disclose whether the officer voluntarily resigned under normal circumstances, resigned under questionable circumstances or was fired.

The forms are stored in a central registry maintained by the commission and accessible by any agency that hires law enforcement officers, giving departments another channel of information about applicants.

“Current Kansas law over the last few years gives Kansas agencies a lot of authority to obtain records and information, which have historically been deemed protected,” Naff said.

“A lot of this falls back to the background investigations. Which I can tell you from firsthand experience where agencies come to us for backgrounds or not at all, not every agency does a good job with their background processes.”

Still, the tool isn’t a magic wand.

In January 2018, Overland Park police officer Clayton Jenison shot and killed 17-year-old John Albers. The shooting occurred after police were called to the Albers home on a welfare check for the teen, who was believed to be suicidal. Jenison shot Albers six times as the teenager backed out of the driveway.

When Jenison resigned the next month, the city reported he had “resigned voluntarily under ordinary circumstances.”

John’s mother, Sheila Albers, said she felt betrayed. “And actually, it hurts the profession of policing when that is allowed,” she said in a recent interview.

Jenison was paid $70,000 in severance when he left the department. He faced no criminal charge and his actions were deemed a “proper use of force” under state law by Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe. Jenison didn’t work for any other departments but retained his police certification until it lapsed earlier this year.

Small towns face vetting challenges

Like Kansas, Missouri has a similar requirement for law enforcement agencies to file a report with the Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training within 30 days of an officer’s departure. The report must include the circumstances of the departure and must specifically say whether the officer violated the regulations of the law enforcement agency or was under investigation for violations of law or “gross violations of law enforcement agency regulations.”

In Marion Police Chief Cody’s case, it’s unclear whether city officials reviewed that report or exactly what it says.

The city council offered Cody the job in April after interviewing two other candidates, both from the area. Cody’s last day with the Kansas City Police Department was on April 22 – making it highly unlikely the council reviewed the report KCPD was required to file with state officials before offering him the job.

The council held a 10-minute executive session about Cody on May 15, before voting 5-0 on May 30 to appoint him as police chief, according to meeting minutes.

Before resigning from KCPD, Cody was under internal review. A female officer filed a hostile work environment complaint against him with police department officials. The Star has previously reported Cody was told that at the end of the internal investigation into the hostile work complaint, he would be demoted to sergeant.

The Marion County Record, the newspaper Cody raided in August, has reported that Collett, the city council member, told a reporter on May 1 that he asked Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training about Cody. Collett has also said he asked KCPD for information.

“Without a city administrator at that time, I believed it important to check the background of the one candidate with no ties to Marion,” Collett said at a Sept. 5 council meeting.

“For that reason and of my own accord, I did make contact with human resources of KCMO PD and with an HR representative I reviewed the official record and pertinent facts related to Mr. Cody’s employment … information was then shared with the rest of the council who were in attendance at an executive session on May 15.”

The Star has requested KCPD provide any correspondence between the department and Collett but has not yet received any records. Collett and Cody didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Former Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast said that when his city hired a police chief, it had a major human resources department that could help provide background on applicants. That’s simply not the case in a small town.

“There are many, many challenges, of course, of not having the staff,” Wolgast said.

Michael Powers, a former chief judge of Kansas’ 8th Judicial District who is running unopposed for Marion mayor, said he intends to bring the same system he used for hiring court employees to city positions. He said the city needs to ensure candidates live up to their resume, especially when hiring department heads.

Powers said he believes in “digging as deeply as you can” with the resources available.

“The more information we can get before we hire someone, the better,” he said.

Skepticism of more background requirements

The haphazard vetting of Cody illustrates why some lawmakers and police reform advocates are pushing to mandate more rigorous background investigations of police applicants.

Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, in 2022 introduced legislation that would require departments to run applicant names through the National Decertification Index. The bill would also require departments to review the records of any applicants in the central registry maintained by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training.

The bill would also direct departments to review any available personnel files from an applicant’s past law enforcement employers.

Holscher said the bill would have still allowed agencies to exercise their own judgment in whether to hire an applicant.

“Law enforcement, overall, they want to ensure that good hires are being made,” Holscher said.

The legislation was assigned to the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee but no action was taken. Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who chairs the committee, didn’t answer questions about the bill.

Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican who represents Marion, said he wasn’t sure whether adding new requirements for agencies would be helpful. Wilborn, who is the committee vice chair, said laws are only useful if they are followed.

“It seems like when we have something go awry the first thing we want to do is pass more laws and it still boils down to obeying and … doing what’s professionally right regardless of what the law is,” Wilborn said.

Klumpp, the lobbyist for Kansas police associations, said the only way to truly understand why an officer left their prior post is often to conduct a full background investigation, visiting their prior home and talking to people. That can take a lot of resources.

“I think there’s financial limits to what some of those agencies could probably do,” Klumpp said.

When Liberal hired Chief Pinkston away from the Wichita Police Department, it spent about $40,000 on its police chief search, said Varnado, the city manager. The city used Strategic Government Resources, a Texas-based consulting firm that offers executive recruitment services.

The firm helped identify a dozen candidates, which the city narrowed down to five and then to two finalists. Varnado made the decision to hire Pinkston.

Albers, whose son was shot and killed by an Overland Park officer, said departments should be required to review the state records available on police applicants.

“That’s a no-brainer,” she said. “That’s just good employment practice. I don’t care what profession.”


The Wichita Eagle’s Chance Swaim contributed reporting

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