Why the officers fired for the George Floyd killing could ultimately get their jobs back

<span>Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP</span>
Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP

The four Minneapolis officers involved in the killing of George Floyd were swiftly fired after footage of his death went viral.

Related: US justice department says inquiry into George Floyd's death a 'top priority'

But that doesn’t mean they’re permanently losing their badges. Officers in the US are frequently rehired after their termination for misconduct, a problem that experts say increases the likelihood of abuse and killings by police.

Despite the decision on Tuesday to fire the policeman who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, along with three other officers at the scene, it’s uncertain if the officers will face long-term repercussions.

On the contrary, some civil rights advocates warn the men could ultimately avoid legal and financial consequences, continue working in other police departments or even win back their positions.

That’s how policing works across America, researchers and activists said, and it’s a process that can drag victims’ families through years of court proceedings and media attention, with minimal relief at the end.

The officers are afforded every opportunity to clear their name and regain everything they lost

Adanté Pointer

“The officers are afforded every opportunity to clear their name and regain everything they lost – their reputation, their status and their jobs,” said Adanté Pointer, a California lawyer who represents police brutality victims. “The family has to endure disappointment after disappointment.”

Floyd’s death on Monday, now under FBI investigation, was the latest example of a black American dying at the hands of a white police officer.

Footage captured Derek Chauvin, an officer, kneeling on top of Floyd, 46, as he lay on the ground shouting “I cannot breathe” and “Don’t kill me!” until he became motionless. Bystanders pleaded for Chauvin to stop. Police were responding to a call of a possible forged check, and authorities on Wednesday identified the other terminated officers as Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J Alexander Kueng.

The footage sparked widespread condemnation and massive protests marked by rubber bullets and teargas. Minneapolis’ mayor, Jacob Frey, has said the “officer failed in the most basic human sense”. Floyd’s family has called for murder charges, though in the US prosecution and conviction of officers is rare, since the law gives officers wide latitude to kill, and prosecutors often have close ties with police.

Protesters outside the third police precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 27 May.
Protesters outside the third police precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 27 May. Photograph: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Prompt termination is also uncommon – and often doesn’t last. Officers can appeal firings, typically supported by powerful police unions. The outcome is frequently decided by arbiters in secretive hearings.

A recent analysis by a local Minnesota paper, the Pioneer Press, found arbiters reversed 46% of police terminations in the last five years. Police chiefs across the US have publicly complained that the process forces them to put officers back on the street after firing them for egregious conduct such as unjustified killings, sexual abuse and lying.

When officers are rehired, “it says they have a license to kill”, said Cat Brooks, an activist in Oakland, where transit police killed Oscar Grant in 2009. “If they killed this time, they’ve often killed before or have a history of problematic use of force.” In one Bay Area city with high rates of police violence, there are numerous officers who have been involved in more than one fatal shooting of a civilian.

If the fired officers in Minneapolis don’t win their jobs back, “I think they’ll quietly be invited to work in other law enforcement departments”, Brooks predicted.

Some police departments also knowingly hire officers who were fired in other jurisdictions, said Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University and expert on police licensing. That’s often because the departments are located in smaller cities with tight budgets and can pay a lower salary to an officer who was terminated. “They are so strapped for cash, so they hire you,” Goldman said.

The Cleveland officer who was fired after fatally shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 was hired by a small Ohio village police department four years later. His new employer defended the decision, noting the officer was never charged.

The Louisiana officer who killed Alton Sterling in 2016 as he was selling CDs outside a convenience store was eventually fired in 2018. But last year, the city reached a settlement with the officer that retracted the firing and allowed him to resign.

“It’s really devastating. You took someone’s life,” Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s son, said in an interview this week. The long process of trying to get justice “impacted us really badly – emotionally, physically, mentally, it was draining”, she said, adding that it was painful to think of the obstacles Floyd’s family will face moving forward, even with the terminations.

Police in riot gear outside the third precinct during protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Police in riot gear outside the third precinct during protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

If fired officers were barred from serving as police, “it would help save a lot of lives”, McMillon said.

Sometimes police chiefs unknowingly hire officers with misconduct histories because of laws that allow officers to keep disciplinary records secret. Other times, they aren’t running thorough background checks, or they determine an officer’s record would not be a liability, said Ben Grunwald, a Duke University law professor.

In a study Grunwald co-authored last month for the Yale Law Journal, he and another researcher found that an average of roughly 1,100 officers working in Florida each year have previously been fired. They tended to move to agencies with fewer resources and slightly larger communities of color. The fired officers were also twice as likely to be fired a second time compared to officers who have never been fired.

The consequences of this rehiring are severe, said L Chris Stewart, a civil rights attorney based in Atlanta. “If you don’t fear losing your job and you know you have all these different immunities that will protect you, you know you will get away with [misconduct].” He said it was hard not to think of this dynamic when watching the video of the Minneapolis killing where the officer ignored Floyd’s cries for help.

An attorney for Chauvin did not respond to a request for comment, and the other officers could not be reached.

Some advocates have pushed for a publicly accessible national database that documents officers’ disciplinary histories, which could help prevent re-hirings that endanger the public. “You can look up what a doctor has done, what a realtor has done, what you and I have done as members of the public, but you have no way to look into the background of a person with a badge and a gun,” said Pointer.

Marc McCoy, whose brother Willie McCoy was killed by police in Vallejo, California last year, said it was hard when the family learned that the officers involved had previously killed other civilians and been the subject of excessive force complaints. “These laws that you think will lead to the officers’ arrest are actually there to protect them,” he said.