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October 13, 2013

Convicted police officers keep certification for years

DUNCAN — In 2002, two off-duty Carter County Sheriff’s deputies were charged with breaking into a home in neighboring Love County and assaulting several residents.

One deputy, Kelby Hughes, pleaded guilty to a felony burglary charge and received a five-year deferred sentence. He and the other deputy, Jerren Almon, who also pleaded guilty, agreed never again to be law officers in Oklahoma, according to a 2003 article in The Oklahoman.

The prosecutor who handled the case, Emily Redman, told the newspaper, “We really took away their careers … I’d say that’s a pretty severe penalty.”

Today, Hughes works as a deputy in the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office. His certification as a peace officer was never revoked, though state law requires that officers convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors lose their certification and thus be removed from law enforcement.

The Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, which certifies peace officers in Oklahoma, never took action against Hughes, allowing him to again wear a badge in the state. The agency says it has no record that it was ever notified of the conviction, which later was expunged. The other deputy, Almon, also never lost his license, though it’s unclear if he continued to work in law enforcement.

Redman did not respond to requests for an interview. Hughes and Almon could not be reached for comment.

The Love County case highlights how a lack of communication between prosecutors and the agency that certifies officers has allowed at least some officers with felony convictions to keep their certifications indefinitely, an Oklahoma Watch investigation found.

The investigation also found significant delays in the revoking of certification for dozens of Oklahoma officers — more than a decade in some cases.

Oklahoma Watch identified a dozen cases where police officers were convicted of felonies but still have the council’s certification as peace officers. From 2010 to 2012, 66 officers had their certification revoked or suspended by CLEET, or they surrendered it. All but a half dozen who surrendered it had felony convictions or were involved in a misconduct investigation. In 22 cases where officers lost or gave up their licenses because of convictions or misconduct, it took longer than two years after convictions or plea agreements to complete. In 18 of those cases, it took longer than four years.

Under state law, district attorneys who handle felony cases involving officers are supposed to notify CLEET, which opens an investigation. That doesn’t happen all the time, said Steve Emmons, the council’s director.

“There isn’t a good communication system in the state,” Emmons said. If the council isn’t aware of such cases, it’s difficult and time-consuming for his agency to track them down, he said.

Convicted Officers

Under state law, the council “shall revoke the certification of any person upon determining that such person has been convicted of a felony or a crime involving moral turpitude or a domestic violence offense.”

Oklahoma Watch provided Emmons with a list of a dozen cases in which officers were convicted of felonies from 2009 to 2011 but still have certifications. Emmons said his agency was unaware of at least several of them.

“We will take action against these,” Emmons said.

Among the cases is one that involves a former Kingfisher Sheriff’s Office deputy, Shawn Theo Thomsen, who received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to lewd acts with a child in July 2010.

Thomsen, a registered sex offender living in Texas, is still certified as a police officer in Oklahoma.

Emmons, CLEET director since 2011, attributed cases such as Thomsen’s and Hughes’ to a communication lapse between agencies. The council has no way of knowing about the convictions if district attorneys’ offices don’t let the agency know, he said. Council staff members do look for news reports on officers’ misconduct, Emmons said.

Michael Fields, the district attorney who oversaw the Thomsen case, said his agency failed to notify the council of the conviction. “It was an oversight,” said Fields, adding that his office would forward the conviction information to CLEET.

After being contacted by Oklahoma Watch, Trent Baggett, assistant executive coordinator for the District Attorneys Council, said the agency will contact district attorneys in the state and remind them about their obligation to notify CLEET.

“It’s not necessarily something we train on each year,” Baggett said. If notification “is not taking place, it should.”

In the Hughes case, it’s less clear what happened because his expunged record. That means the specifics of his conviction cannot be found in the state’s public courts database, and Emmons said they have no way of verifying whether Hughes was convicted of a felony.

“We don’t really know for sure what happened in 2003,” Emmons said.

Johnston County Sheriff Jon Smith said he was aware of Hughes’ criminal history, but “there’s nothing preventing him from being an officer.” The conviction has “pretty much been wiped out,” Smith said.

Time Lapse

In other cases where officers were convicted of felonies, it took the council years, sometimes more than a decade, to revoke an officer’s certification.

For instance, former Dewar police officer Haskell Wadsworth was convicted in May 2000 of rape and molestation in Okmulgee County, served 10 years in prison and was released. A year later, the council revoked his certification.

Since 2011, the agency has begun looking into older cases of police misconduct, trying to identify some that had been overlooked, Emmons said.

“That doesn’t mean the problems are fixed,” he said.

The time lapses raise the question of how many more cases of officers with felony convictions have gone unreported to the council.

Emmons said the agency will take a look at cases identified by Oklahoma Watch, but it would be difficult to identify all cases without additional funding and resources.

“We may still not know about” other cases, Emmons said.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.

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