LOS ANGELES — By the end of the year, researchers hope to launch a database registry that they hope will be the first national, comprehensive catalog of police officers who have resigned or been terminated from their departments for misconduct.
The Law Enforcement Work Inquiry System — or LEWIS — Registry is intended to hold police and their departments accountable for whom they hire and build trust among the public that bad apples will not be recycled from agency to agency. It’s a product of the University of Southern California’s Safe Communities Institute and was co-founded by SCI Director Dr. Erroll Southers and Dr. Güez Salinas. Its namesake is the late U.S. Congressmember and civil rights icon, John Lewis.
“The goal is to make it simple for the public to be able to see everything that’s publicly known,” Salinas said. “But the other thing is building on top of Dr. Southers' experience as a law enforcement officer and understanding what chiefs go through in the hiring process, making sure that they have a tool to vet whether an officer has had an infraction from a previous department.”
Those are the two prongs of its mission: first, to give the public a database that names officers who have been fired or resigned from a law enforcement agency based on public and open-source information. That would include news articles and reports that include names, dates, agencies and offenses committed.
The registry is also intended to help law enforcement agencies make better hiring decisions by collecting statistics that will be walled-off with in-depth statistics intended for analytics.
“Law enforcement, we hope, will have things like what shift or watch an officer was on, how many years in the department, if they were on a special detail and any other items,” Southers said.
In other words, it is information that doesn’t violate privacy laws or compromise human resources regulations but may give a greater view as to how certain details, shifts or departments may affect how an officer conducts business.
To do so, the registry will have two components: one public-facing and the other used exclusively by law enforcement agencies. But there are an estimated 18,000 federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Therefore, to provide a comprehensive database across the country, LEWIS will depend on being fed information from the public and its partner agencies, as well as media reports.
That means it’s not enough for an announcement or news story to state that an officer is no longer with their department. They need the reasoning, too. An advisory board will guide the LEWIS Registry's objectives, and will review officer additions and decisions about removing officers from the registry. The database already includes approximately 235 officers, Southers said.
The registry will also source information from partner agencies, though that could prove to be difficult, depending on how convinced police chiefs across the country might be by the system.
“But I don’t think it’s going to be a problem at this time,” said John Thomas, chief of USC’s Department of Public Safety.
Thomas’ department is among those participating in the registry’s early testing rounds, alongside law enforcement agencies from each of the PAC 12 athletic conference universities and all of the University of California school systems.
It’s not uncommon, Thomas explained, for officers to leave a department just before they’re terminated for misconduct or to prevent the news of their termination from making it to the agency they’re applying to — especially if they hop from one state to another.
“One of the challenges about being a chief is the responsibility you have to hire the right officers that have been appropriately background checked and vetted, to have as many systems of redundancy in place to make sure that you’re not getting a problem officer,” Thomas said. “The LEWIS Registry allows for another process that we can go to and look at whether or not an officer is an issue with their background.”
LEWIS also has political heavy-hitters backing it, including Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is also president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents the largest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
The LEWIS Registry will launch beta tests for law enforcement later this year and estimates a public-facing launch in early 2022.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the timeframe of the public launch. The error has been corrected. (June 21, 2021)