By Shaun Hittle
OKLA. CITY —
More than a quarter of Oklahoma law officers who were disciplined by the state’s certification agency or surrendered their certifications over a three-year period had been convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes, according to records analyzed by Oklahoma Watch.
From 2010 to 2012, 66 officers had their certifications revoked or suspended, were given a letter of reprimand or they surrendered their certification, according to records from the Council on Law Enforcement and Education, or CLEET, which certifies officers. Of those, 18 were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, sex crimes. One other was acquitted of a sex-crime charge, but surrendered his certification.
State law requires that CLEET revoke the certification an officer who is convicted of, or who pleads guilty to, a felony or certain misdemeanors.
The sex crimes ranged from indecent exposure to multiple counts of rape and indecent liberties with children.
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Some cases involved off-duty criminal behavior, but at least five involved on-duty sexual crimes. For instance, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Officer Patrick Venable was charged with second-degree rape in 2011, accused of pulling over a woman for drunken driving, then taking her to a Guthrie home and having sex with her. Venable, 29, pleaded guilty to assault in July this year and received a five-year suspended sentence, 90 days in the Logan County jail and two years of probation.
Several other cases involved deputies sexually assaulting female jail inmates.
The 48 cases not involving sex crimes included offenses such as falsifying firearms qualifications, domestic violence, aggravated assault and drunken driving.
Trusted the Most
Mark Zelig, an Alaska-based psychologist, former Utah police officer and consultant who has testified in police misconduct cases, said it’s important to keep in mind that police probably commit sex crimes at lower rates than the general population.
“99.9 percent of these men and women, you can trust,” Zelig said.
But any level of such behavior shocks the public conscience, he said.
“These are the people we trust the most,” Zelig said. Sex crimes are “even more egregious” when an officer is involved.
Police often deal with vulnerable people, and temptations abound for law enforcement officers to violate their oaths and duty.
“If you’re a fox, you’re being put in a hen house,” Zelig said.
That’s why it’s important for law-enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate a potential officer’s background before hiring the person, said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. George Brown.
“We’ll take nothing less than perfect,” Brown said of the agency’s screening and recruiting process, which includes intensive background checks, a polygraph examination and psychological evaluations. “These troopers are scrutinized.”
The screening is designed to alert the agency to potential red flags for sex offenses and other behaviors that could be problematic in law enforcement, Brown said.
State law requires police agencies to complete criminal background checks on potential officers. Any felony conviction, and some misdemeanors, will automatically disqualify someone for police employment in Oklahoma. Agencies are also required to perform a psychological evaluation on applicants.
Smaller agencies, though, face resource obstacles, said Steve Emmons, director of the officer-certification council. While the Highway Patrol can perform lie detector tests and background searches, smaller departments often perform just the basic psychological exam and criminal background check.
“They can barely afford uniforms,” Emmons said.
Instituting a statewide system that would help agencies perform more thorough checks would be welcome, Emmons said, but he doesn’t envision that happening in the current tight budgetary times.
Even the most rigorous background-check policies can’t prevent all instances of sexual misconduct, Brown said. Since 2010, two OHP troopers have been convicted of sex crimes and lost their state certifications.
“It’s not a perfect science,” Brown said. “We can’t control human nature.”
OKLAHOMA WATCH is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues.