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Despite Reforms, Louisiana Still Keeps Some Police Data Secret

Lawmakers tried and failed to track “wandering officers.” But state regulators also refuse to release data that would help journalists and the public do so.

This photo shows a close-up of Louisiana State Police's SWAT Team.
Spc. Tanya Van Buskirk / Wikimedia Commons

This story is being co-published by The Appeal and the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit public accountability journalism organization.

In 2015, Louisiana lawmakers created a database to track police certifications, which officers must maintain to work in law enforcement. Legislators claimed the information would prevent police officers with histories of misconduct from finding new law enforcement jobs in other jurisdictions.

But, by virtually all accounts, that database has failed to achieve its objective. According to repeated journalistic investigations, officers in Louisiana regularly maintain their certifications after being criminally convicted. Many fail to report to the state why they leave their jobs as required by law. And some then go on to commit misconduct with new police departments. 

Despite the state expanding its police-oversight powers in 2017, the problem has persisted. On top of this failure of oversight, Louisiana is also one of 14 states that keep this database secret from the public, according to a report project by a national coalition of news organizations.

This lack of comprehensive data makes it impossible for the press or public to monitor the state’s oversight of so-called “wandering officers”: cops who leave one police department after committing misconduct and find work at another. 

Where reporters and researchers have been able to access such information, they have shown significant gaps in state oversight systems that allow officers with troubled pasts to rack up complaints at new departments while state processes against them stay pending for years. Wandering officers shuffle to small agencies like school districts and suburban police departments that may not conduct full background checks. Others congregate at agencies run by chiefs or sheriffs with a record of hiring officers with histories of misconduct

At least 30 states, including Louisiana’s neighbors Mississippi and Texas, make this information public. In Florida, researchers showed that wandering officers are more likely to be fired at their new department than other officers and rack up more sustained complaints about their “moral character” than other officers. 

Louisiana used to be a part of this group: the state has released its certification data to journalists at least twice, in 2019 and 2021, and several other times to Innocence Project New Orleans. 

But now the Peace Officer Standards and Trainings Council (POST), which certifies and oversees police officers in the state, claims that a state law that was in effect at the time of the previous requests “limits our ability” to release up-to-date information to journalists.

Rebekah Taylor, a program manager for POST, told the Invisible Institute and The Appeal in an email that it is “erroneous and simply false” to “conclude that Louisiana doesn’t make peace officer data public,” citing the “some 10-20 requests daily” that POST receives for individual officer history reports. 

But experts have questioned POST’s interpretation of state law.

Wandering Officers

In 2017, Travis “Clay” Depew was fired by the rural Pointe Coupée Parish Sheriff’s Office, northwest of Baton Rouge, for “stalking and malfeasance in office” after being arrested on those charges. His ex-girlfriend had accused him of following her home from work in his squad car and using police equipment to run the plates of cars outside of her house.

Despite these criminal charges, which were later expunged, Depew got a new job at the tiny Jackson Marshal’s Office a few miles away in 2020. The department hired Depew even though his criminal record had not yet been erased and thus would have turned up on a background check. 

Depew quickly racked up multiple excessive force and sexual assault complaints, according to lawsuits filed by the ACLU of Louisiana Justice Lab. In one, which later settled, Depew allegedly beat a Black man because he disapproved of the man’s relationship with a white woman. Depew was later convicted of simple battery for choking a 16-year-old Black boy and using racial slurs against him in 2021 at a gas station. 

Despite this, Bob Wertz, the training manager for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration for Criminal Justice (LCLE), told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in April 2023 that he “would want to have more” evidence before stripping Depew’s police certification.

Three months later, Depew was arrested on stalking charges again and resigned from the department. This allows him to maintain his certification through a loophole in state law that requires decertifications to be initiated by the employing agency. POST, part of LCLE, can only initiate the decertification process when an officer resigns or is fired for excessive force. In this case, Depew was allowed to resign from the Jackson Marshal’s Office on stalking charges rather than the excessive force complaints he’d racked up. 

Due to this loophole, Wertz said that there’s nothing POST can do to prevent him from finding work in law enforcement after his current criminal case.

The Times-Picayune highlighted Depew’s case in a 2023 series, which found that, of 228 Louisiana police officers who have been convicted of or lost their jobs over various criminal offenses, just 1 in 5 have been decertified by POST. 

However, the newspaper did this reporting without POST’s police certification and employment history data. Rather than release comprehensive files that it’s required to maintain, POST forced the newspaper to file requests for dozens of individual officer histories—and pay hundreds of dollars for the records.

In addition to the national news coalition and the Times-Picayune, POST has denied requests for employment history data from the Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database, an initiative of Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), according to Ayyub Ibrahim, the project’s director of research. Louisiana joins a handful of other states — Colorado, Montana, and Virginia — that previously released certification data to journalists but now refuse to.

Going back on their word

The Louisiana Uniform Law Enforcement Statewide Reporting Database, created by the aforementioned 2015 law, is where POST is required to maintain police officer certifications, employment history, terminations, and training.

In 2019, the Invisible Institute and USA Today Network used Louisiana’s certification data to show that POST had only stripped certifications from a handful of officers. Dozens of officers—or more—had committed misconduct that could have resulted in decertification but, due to lax reporting requirements, maintained their certifications. In some cases, the officers continued working. 

At the time, LCLE training manager Wertz told journalists that the reporting requirement merely amounted to an “honor system.” Yet he still provided the Invisible Institute with a spreadsheet showing all officers’ current or most recent employers in POST’s database. Two years later, in 2021, he provided an updated file.

In 2022, the Invisible Institute joined a national coalition of news organizations seeking police certification and employment history data in every state. Big Local News, a program of Stanford University’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative, had convened the group, which has obtained data from over 30 states. 

Wertz, however, denied the news coalition’s September 2022 request in Louisiana.

“The information you seek does not exist in any document form, although[…] most of the data resides in the POST data system,” Wertz wrote in response to the news coalition’s 2022 records request. “Since there are no structured queries(reports) to access that data in the system as you requested, we would have to hire a specialist to compile and configure your data request. We have no funds budgeted for this purpose.” He assessed the cost at $21,000.

It’s not clear precisely what drove up the costs—the company that created POST’s system advertises on its website that it features a “centralized relational database” of officer histories based on a standard programming language called SQL, which should allow the requested data to be easily exported. The company, Baton Rouge-based TEI Software Development, has not responded to requests for comment. Eventually, reporters negotiated Wertz down to an estimated fee of $1,380. 

Regardless, within a few hours, Wertz backtracked from his initial position. 

“Upon further review, we believe that compiling the data in any kind of SQL query regarding employment data presents a problem for us,” he wrote, providing a legal citation. “Therefore, the estimated cost for the query is withdrawn.”

The exemption Wertz cited, claiming that state law prevented any data from POST’s database from being released, was passed in 2017 — years before the Invisible Institute and USA Today’s successful requests in 2019 and 2021.

The 2017 bill expanded the information collected by POST to include terminations, some resignations, civil judgments, and some criminal cases involving officers. It also introduced two new provisions relating to public records.

The first, L.R.S. 15:1212.1(E), states that “the personal information of a peace officer” — home address, home phone number, birth date, Social Security Number, driver’s license number, and POST training system username — “shall be confidential” and not requestable under the Louisiana Public Records Law.

The second, 15:1212.1(F), states that information received by POST on the forms used to submit officer certification status updates, “other than certification and training records of a law enforcement officer[,] shall be used for hiring or revocation purposes only and shall not be disclosed to any persons other than a qualifying law enforcement agency.”

What does “certification and training records” mean?

The bill that created these public records exemptions was sponsored by then-State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), who is now a state senator. Most of the bill’s public discussion centered on expanding the database to include disciplinary data — not the records exemptions buried in its text.

Jackson introduced the bill after Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of Baton Rouge Police Officer Blane Salamoni. That officer had previously been arrested for battery, which he did not disclose on his hiring records. Both of his parents had long careers at the BRPD, prompting an investigation into potential nepotism.

As lawmakers debated the bill, The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge reported that Louisiana was one of the states least likely to strip officers of their certifications, even after criminal convictions.

During a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2017, Jackson said there’s a “public records exception to ensure that these records are not subject to just general public records requests.” She described that as a “very important” part of the bill, which she described in multiple committee hearings as a “consensus bill” that she worked on with law enforcement groups. 

Senators did not ask further questions in the hearing about why these records might be withheld from the public. This leaves a gap in the legislative history, making it difficult to interpret what POST can release. 

Specifically, does the definition of “certification and training records” exclude, and thus exempt from release, the employment history data that would allow the public to track wandering officers?

Public records experts called that into question. While cautioning that his organization wasn’t giving a legal opinion, “It certainly seems to us that the legislature’s intention was to make this information available to the public,” Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said. “In general, agencies should always default to open government and strive to find ways to provide information rather than excuses to conceal it.”

Melia Cerrato, the sunshine legal fellow with Tulane University Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, agreed. 

“Journalists play a crucial role in holding police departments accountable and ensuring transparency for the public,” she said. “Access to basic police data, including certifications and employment history, is vital to accountability and uncovering patterns of abuse. Citizens have a right to know who is policing them and their records of employment.”

In an email, Taylor, POST’s program manager, defended the agency’s interpretation of state law.

“On the question about [the] SQL database, Louisiana Revised Statutes (R.S. 15:1212 and 15:1212.1) clearly distinguish the types of information that can be shared with other parties,” she wrote. “The formatting of the database is considered proprietary by our vendor and is also not a public record.”

However, Louisiana’s public records law expressly includes “electronically stored information or information contained in databases or electronic data processing equipment” in its definition of public records.

When contacted for comment, Sen. Jackson asked for a copy of POST’s denial. She has not responded to follow-ups.

POST won’t do it and won’t make it easy for anyone else

POST has also refused to hand over data to IPNO’s Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database (LLEAD) project, a statewide database of police employment, internal investigations, discipline, use of force, and other records on officers.

Innocence Project New Orleans created LLEAD to help its attorneys dive deep into the histories of detectives whose names would appear repeatedly in their cases, its executive director Jee Park told Verite News in February 2023.

“In order to be comprehensive, we needed information on every officer, not just our list of bad cops,” she said.

Ibrahim, LLEAD’s director of research, instead files dozens of requests with POST for individual PDF files of officer employment histories. He had to develop a process to feed them into LLEAD’s database using AI and machine learning tools.

“It really does take a strong technical background to be able to automate these processes, which is why it’s important that they just release it in an easily digestible format,” Ibrahim said.

Through that painstaking work, LLEAD reported last year that just over half of officers who left their jobs between 2018 and 2023 did not fill out paperwork listing the reason for their departures — whether for a termination, resignation, retirement, or other reasons.

LLEAD found that at least 14 officers who did not fill out the required paperwork went on to be hired elsewhere.

POST, meanwhile, has no program of its own to track wandering officers or analyze the data it maintains.

A separate 2017 law broadened POST’s ability to decertify officers beyond the previous guidelines, which required a felony conviction. The offenses now include, among other things, civil rights violations. But POST has virtually never used these new powers, partly because the 2017 bill did not come with any additional resources along with this new mandate. POST’s rate of decertification remains one of the lowest in the country, even as the Times-Picayune’s reporting has pushed it to increase in recent months

“In Orleans Parish, the failure of law enforcement to disclose crucial exculpatory evidence to defense has been a contributing factor in a staggering 78% of wrongful convictions, which is over twice the national average,” LLEAD’s Ibrahim said.

Having access to the state’s employment history data would, he said, “allow us to have a complete understanding of how systematic and how problematic this issue of wandering officers is.”

That understanding may be even more necessary soon. On Feb. 15, newly elected Gov. Jeff Landry signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency around police hiring and lifting political hiring limits by sheriffs. 

“As a former police officer and sheriff’s deputy, I understand the vital role our law enforcement officers play in our communities,” Landry said in a prepared statement.

The affected law prevents sheriffs and other elected officials from increasing their staff by more than 5 percent within six months of an election for governor. Over the years, the statute has prevented sheriffs from hiring temporary staff who worked on their political campaigns.

Local experts have questioned whether this move is the best way to counter police understaffing issues. 

“There’s a lot of issues of safety in the city and in the state,” said Ashraf Esmail, who directs the Dillard University Center for Racial Justice. “But at the same time, there’s a question of who’s protecting us.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Disclosure: Rajiv Sinclair of Public Data Works, a founding partner of LLEAD, previously worked with Sam Stecklow at the Invisible Institute