Whenever we hear news of police officers engaging in gross and often deadly misconduct, one theme is all too common. As cases are investigated, we eventually learn that these cops either should have been fired long ago, or never been hired in the first place.
The latest sordid chapter comes from New Orleans. In September, Rodney Vicknair, a 13-year police veteran, was arrested for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl. Vicknair first met the girl when he drove her and her mother to the hospital for a rape kit; he then spent the spring and summer of 2020 grooming her. He progressed from highly inappropriate comments about her body to fondling her, before sexually assaulting her.
Vicknair was fired in January; New Orleans officials have been working with the FBI to investigate potential civil rights violations on Vicknair’s part. His behavior is particularly brazen, considering that the assault happened on the same weekend as George Floyd’s murder—mere months after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson had sparked increased police scrutiny. Additionally, the #MeToo movement was in full swing. All things considered, it says a lot that Vicknair could even think he could get away with such a debauched stunt.
In late February, the victim’s mother sued Vicknair in federal court for trampling on her daughter’s civil rights by grooming and sexually assaulting her. But she also sued the New Orleans Police Department, police superintendent Shaun Ferguson, and the city of New Orleans. The mother contends they ignored a litany of flashing red lights in Vicknair’s history which suggested he should have been stripped of his badge long before he and her daughter crossed paths.
The complaint, viewable here, makes for horrifying reading. Vicknair was the subject of several complaints dating back to his third year with the NOPD—for unauthorized use of force, unprofessional conduct, verbal intimidation, dereliction of duty, and disregarding both department policy and the law. Among those complaints were several instances where Vicknair used the power of his badge to engage in predatory behavior against women.
The most outrageous of these incidents came in 2009, when Vicknair ran a woman’s license plate number through the onboard computer system of his patrol car so he could call her to his car by name. His punishment? A five-day suspension. The complaint also claims that numerous traffic stops Vicknair made from 2018 onward were intended to “meet women for the purpose of sexual gratification.”
The mother’s lawyer, Hope Phelps, says that her clients were “shouldering a great burden to make sure Officer Vicknair and the system that made his actions possible are held to account.” This isn’t just hyperbole. The complaint notes a study by Bowling Green State University that reveals sexual misconduct by cops frequently goes unreported.
Simply put, there was no defensible reason for Vicknair to still have his badge in 2020. And because of that failure, a 15-year-old girl and her mother find themselves having to put their lives back together. Under the circumstances, the only question ought to be whether the settlement they receive will have seven or eight digits.
It shouldn’t have had to be this way. And it didn’t have to be. After all, Tamir Rice’s death in 2014 should have served notice to police departments around the country that allowing unfit cops on the force can have deadly and expensive consequences.
Twelve-year-old Tamir’s death was a travesty—he was shot to death within seconds of Cleveland police arriving at his neighborhood park. However, that travesty was magnified when we learned that the officer who killed him, Timothy Loehmann, should have never been hired. As we now know, in 2012, Loehmann briefly worked for another police department, in nearby Independence, Ohio. He resigned rather than face certain termination—after his superiors determined he wasn’t emotionally stable enough to be an officer.
According to Loehmann’s personnel file from Independence, he suffered an emotional breakdown during firearms training, and was unable to complete it even after his field training officer displayed almost saintlike patience while trying to let him compose himself. Independence Deputy Chief Jim Polak concluded that Loehmann displayed “a pattern of immaturity, indiscretion, and not following instructions,” and was unable to “substantially cope, or make good decisions” when in a high-pressure situation. Considering Loehmann’s catastrophic lapse of judgment in that park, Polak’s assessment looks almost prophetic.
Inexplicably, when Loehmann applied to the Cleveland Division of Police, no one reviewed Loehmann’s personnel file from his days on the Independence force. Had they done so, they would have seen that he was clearly unfit to be a cop, and they would have seen he was lying when he claimed he left for personal reasons. What police department with an iota of respect for the public would fail to take the basic step of checking an applicant’s past history at other departments?
It took some two years for Loehmann to be formally fired—and not for the grossly inappropriate use of force that killed Tamir, but for falsely claiming that he’d left the Independence police for personal reasons. At a press conference in 2017, Cleveland Chief Calvin Williams detailed a process in which it took almost three years for an administrative hearing into Loehmann’s actions.
To recap: The general public knew as early as 2014 that Loehmann had been pushed out of a nearby police department under circumstances that should have caused alarm bells to go off in Cleveland. By 2016, the city of Cleveland had all but admitted Loehmann’s actions were improper when it paid Tamir’s family $6 million. Yet it took until 2017 to determine that Loehmann should be fired. Yeah, that’s a good way to establish community trust.
Sadly, we’ve seen a number of other incidents where cops were allowed to keep their badges despite behavior that should have gotten them fired, or even arrested. In 2016, Long Beach, Mississippi, cop Cassie Barker was arrested for leaving her three-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, to roast to death in a hot car. Barker left Cheyenne in the car for four hours while she was busy having sex with her then-supervisor. The temperature that day was well over 100°; by the time Cheyenne arrived at the hospital, her temperature was 107°.
Incredibly, this was the second time Barker was caught leaving her young daughter in a hot car. Not long after being hired in 2014, she left Cheyenne in the car while shopping in nearby Gulfport. She could have and should have been fired on the spot, especially since she was still in her probationary period. However, all she got was a one-week suspension and a 90-day extension of that probationary period.
Barker pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2019 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Left unanswered is how anyone could think anyone who’d left their child in a hot car, especially in south Mississippi, was at all fit to continue working as a cop.
In 2018, Bradenton, Florida, police sergeant Leonel Marines resigned rather than face certain termination for using a law enforcement database to find information on women—all in hopes of scoring dates. Despite his resignation, the internal investigation into Marines continued; it ultimately revealed that Marines had contacted some 150 women over the years, and even had sex with some of them while on duty. A number of his targets were Latina women who didn’t speak English—suggesting that Marines thought they would be reluctant to report him out of fear of being deported.
Under the circumstances, it was easy to see why Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan was struggling to control her anger at the press conference announcing the findings of the internal investigation.
Incredibly, Marines was previously caught using the database to prey on women in 2011, but he only got a three-day suspension. I find myself asking the same question that I’m asking about New Orleans’ Vicknair now: In what world was Marines not fired on the spot?
Bradenton Police turned over the results of its internal investigation to the FBI, and the FBI probe still continues as of this writing. One can only hope that the FBI can find out how, and why, a cop was allowed to continue such predatory behavior for almost seven years.
These anecdotes are but a microcosm of a larger problem. Why do police departments let clearly unfit cops keep their badges, and hire (and protect) cops who should never be on the force in the first place?
There have been a lot of calls for changes in policing; even from people like Charles Koch. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed by House Democrats on March 4, contains several long-overdue measures to combat police misconduct. One provision provides for a national database of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions. Clearly, the bill’s primary author, California Rep. Karen Bass, recognized that a necessary corollary of police reform is better vetting of prospective cops. Indeed, had this database existed in 2014, it is very likely that Loehmann would have been stopped at the gates when he applied in Cleveland.
But more needs to be done. For instance, we need to hold those already on the force to far higher standards.
Ironically, we learned about Vicknair’s depravities because New Orleans is trying to take a step in the right direction by making it easier for cops to be held accountable. According to local NBC affiliate WDSU, when the victim’s mother learned about what Vicknair was doing to her daughter, she didn’t alert the NOPD’s Police Integrity Bureau, as the internal affairs unit is known there. Rather, she alerted the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, an agency set up in 2008 to protect citizens from police misconduct. Soon after that office passed on that complaint to NOPD brass, Vicknair was arrested.
However, Police Monitor Susan Hutson told WDSU that she would have liked to have seen Vicknair’s past record sooner than last September. The NOPD has an early warning system that alerts department supervisors about potentially problematic behavior by officers. While New Orleans city ordinances require the NOPD to make that system available to Hutson’s office, Hutson has yet to receive that access. She believes that the lack of access is preventing the NOPD from fully complying with a sweeping consent decree that has been in place since 2012, in response to years of civil rights violations.
Hutson conceded that it wasn’t clear whether Vicknair’s disciplinary record would have sounded any alarms before his arrest. However, she doesn’t like that she has to rely on NOPD brass for access to disciplinary records. She’s particularly concerned about how hard her job will be after the consent decree ends. Nonetheless, the fact that the victim’s mother had an option to report Vicknair’s debauchery that didn’t involve the police hierarchy is laudable. It all but eliminated any chance of his crimes disappearing into the ether.
Similar agencies have been set up across the country in recent years. One has to wonder: If such an agency existed in Minneapolis, with its long history of abusive behavior by police, would George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, have lost his badge before 2020? After all, Chauvin was the subject of 18 complaints in his two decades with the Minneapolis Police Department, only two of which resulted in discipline.
Additionally, as part of his effort to prosecute Chauvin, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sought to introduce six incidents dating back to 2015 in which Chauvin restrained people by their necks or knelt on them—the same tactic that killed Floyd. However, only two of them filed complaints. It stands to reason that more of them would have filed complaints if they were able to go outside the police hierarchy.
On the face of it, New Orleans and other cities with independent police monitors provide a blueprint that the nation ought to follow. If people knew they could report instances of police misconduct without fear of reprisal or fear that their complaint wouldn’t be acted upon, they wouldn’t be as afraid to speak up. For instance, had there been an independent police monitor in Bradenton, Marines’ predatory spree would have likely ended far sooner than 2018. Further, an independent set of eyes would likely be far less inclined to condone behavior that would not be tolerated in a non-police setting, like with Barker’s decision to leave her daughter in a hot car so soon after being hired.
It seems that it makes almost too much sense for lawmakers at the federal and state level to make independent monitoring mandatory, or at least create a strong incentive for cities to implement them. This is one case where you can literally put a price tag on community trust. It may not be cheap to implement independent police monitoring, and giving those monitoring agencies the tools they need for actual oversight. But it would be far cheaper than paying seven-figure and eight-figure settlements in the event of police misconduct that results in death (as with Tamir Rice and George Floyd) or psychological devastation (as with Vicknair’s victim).
Vicknair now faces up to 23 years in prison if convicted. Based on what we know, if he is convicted, the maximum sentence would be the minimum sentence. But it’s clear that he never would have had a chance to victimize a girl if he’d been fired for using the power of his badge to deceive women. Fortunately, his abuses came to light because the victim’s mother had a way to report them that the police would not be able to ignore. Tougher vetting of police applicants and independent monitoring of police are the best solutions at this point to build community trust in the police. It’s something that must be acted upon, and quickly. We shouldn’t have to wait for the next tragedy.