What Timothy Loehmann’s Firing Can Teach Us All About Better Document Management

In November 2014, the officer-involved shooting (OIS) of 12-year-old Tamir Rice burst onto the national news cycle. The Cleveland, Ohio, Police Department (CPD) found itself facing outrage for two reasons: first, for not immediately condemning the shooting death of a child; and second, for defending the actions of trainee officer Timothy Loehmann, who fired two fatal shots into Rice’s torso only seconds after arriving on the scene.

Today, the story’s power remains evident as it continues to generate fresh aftershocks with each new development, most of them centered on Loehmann.  A grand jury’s decision not to indict the CPD trainee for criminal conduct, mere months after a judge found “probable cause for the charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty” in a nonbinding analysis was a jarring development that led to a multimillion-dollar settlement for the slain boy’s family.

Though free of criminal charges, Loehmann’s time with the CPD would still prove short. In May 2017, less than two years after the grand jury declined to indict, the agency announced its intention to terminate Loehmann’s employment, effective immediately. Officials insisted the decision had nothing to do with the Rice case, though the structure of the news conference and comments made throughout call that assertion into question. Instead, city and CPD personnel said information about Loehmann’s job fitness, unearthed following Rice’s death in 2014, conflicted with what the officer claimed on his resume when joining the CPD. Among other things, Loehmann’s resume stated that his departure from a previous job was voluntary. In reality, he was offered the option to either quit or be fired after a string of behaviors and incidents called his fitness for duty into serious question.

Loehmann continued to make the occasional headline over the next year, but the larger lesson for law enforcement and other agencies stops at the news conference. In short, documentation matters. With or without an agency-defining crisis on their hands, public safety agencies of all disciplines are better prepared and protected when their systems support any data the organization finds relevant, hold it in one spot, and keep it for the length of a given employee’s tenure.

Delving deeper: Changes announced during the Loehmann news conference and what other agencies can learn from them

Without delving too far into Loehmann’s past, neither the city nor its police department took excessive care in obscuring their motivations for the Loehmann firing. Cleveland’s mayor was reportedly at the press conference to offer condolences to the Rice family; CPD Chief Calvin Williams is quoted in several articles saying, “There’s a 12-year-old-kid dead” when asked how his office would deal with critics of the pretext firing. Add in the fact that the investigation began shortly after the shooting, briefly stopped, and resumed only after the grand jury decision, and there seems to be no question as to why investigators went diving into Loehmann’s previous employment records.‘…reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty…’ was a jarring judgement that led to a multimillion-dollar settlement for the slain boy’s family.CLICK TO TWEET

In his short pre-CPD career, documented mistakes by Loehmann’s first agency run the gamut from minor offenses, bizarre occurrences, and egregious actions that would lead to almost-certain termination in other departments. For example, during state firing range qualifications Loehmann reportedly had an emotional breakdown on the range, failed to properly secure his service weapon, and removed his bulletproof vest because he was hot. These findings — and the fear of hiring more recruits of such low apparent quality — ultimately motivated Williams and the CPD to change their hiring policy. Now, the CPD requests the balance of documents the previous organization can securely share, and thoroughly reviews them before making an employment commitment of any kind.

On its face, this seems like a common sense approach. Consider, however, the challenges an agency might face when asked to collect and disseminate all of its training and employment records for outside review. Incompatible digital systems, not to mention the paper-based processes still in use in many departments, present a number of information-sharing roadblocks. Often, by the time important information reaches the requesting agency the hiring agency has already decided to take the risk.

Resolving personnel woes with a centralized approach

Unfortunately, in the public sector, this situation is most prevalent amongst law enforcement agencies. Once a minor problem in regions of the US, a full-blown policing personnel shortage has withered headcounts and led desperate managers to be somewhat less selective. When the only other option is to accept a smaller budget, there seems to be little choice. While most subpar officers presumably do not end up in situations similar to Loehmann’s, there is also no question that less-than-stellar police — and occasionally, totally unqualified ones — end up in positions with life-and-death responsibilities. Such situations lead to damaged reputations and erosion of the public trust.

Better documentation is not a failsafe, but the CPD’s situation shows how it might be of service in avoiding a bad hire. Why employ a different system for each organizational unit when each could instead share all relevant data in one technical solution? This example offers a lot of utility compared to mixed, incompatible systems. For example, Field Training Officers may not see each other’s observations during the weeks of training, but can easily review them when the results are all stored in the same shared training ecosystem. As examples in our recent FTO whitepaper show, an individual hire, recruit, or even longstanding employee may lack any obvious red flag that makes them unsuitable for the job. With centrally collected knowledge, however, identifying a pattern of small problems that might signal a candidate’s greater unsuitability does not require significant effort. Thus, the necessary analysis is more likely to get done.

Bad hires are not the only hires

Of course, obvious oversights are not the only way in which problem officers end up back on the job, and they should not be the only reason an agency considers a newer, more centralized system. Better organization, access, and visibility mitigate a number of risks, and enhanced speed and ease of use increase both productivity and savings.

The time savings need not be elaborate in order to be worthwhile, either. With the right tools in place, a comprehensive digital Training Management System can run a report letting superiors know exactly who took a given course, when they last took it, and other pertinent data. Likewise, it can auto-alert supervisors of noncompliant individuals, with a custom message telling them exactly what steps they need to take.

Consider every important document and bit of data generated in a year of police work: course logs, test and range scores, performance reviews, and other data pile up fast. With the sheer volume of data generated over an officer’s career, it is easy to see how gaps in an ad-hoc system can quickly become troublesome. Training and compliance records are the types of documentation called into question when lawsuits are filed, and judges and juries are rarely tolerant of missing training records destroyed by a burst over a filing cabinet.

Returning to Tamir Rice for a moment, it would be dishonest and highly disrespectful to imply better document management would have prevented such a tragedy. Law enforcement is a high-risk, high-responsibility field, and it only takes a second to reverse even the most promising officer’s career or to send a department into crisis. What is clear is that document handling, when it comes to law enforcement records, tracking, and hiring practices can be and should be done better.

With or without a crisis though, public safety agencies of all disciplines are better prepared and protected when they invest in an internal affairs case management system. Without it, your organization is open to costly litigation and increased risk.

Learn how the new internal affairs case management module in the Acadis Readiness Suite can help get your organization ready today, for tomorrow.

Posted on Nov 5, 2019