As law enforcement officers resigned or were dismissed across the country after the civil unrest that took place following the murder of George Floyd, only to be reinstated in other departments — with some states actively advertising for the rehiring of these officers — Erroll Southers saw the need for immediate transparency and accountability in policing.
To make a direct impact on the police screening process and culture, Southers, alongside alumnus Güez Salinas, created the Law Enforcement Work Inquiry System, a database to collect data on officers who have resigned or been fired following misconduct — including excessive use of force, sexual or physical assault and harassment, and planting or destroying evidence.
The registry, which will publicly go live in October, will be the first publicly available, comprehensive catalog to compile a record of national data on police misconduct. Also known as LEWIS, the registry was named after the late United States representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, who Southers and Salinas said they wanted to honor for the times he nonviolently pushed back against police abuse.
In creating the database, Southers and Salinas sought to address transparency, accountability, research and policing policy, hoping to increase trust between communities and police officers, and to also become commonly known as an effective resource for changing the police system.
“Ultimately, the human element needs to be addressed and many reform efforts don’t address that,” said Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute and a USC Sol Price School of Public Policy professor. “How many times have you heard after a tragic event that law enforcement says, ‘We need more training.’ Well, we’ve been saying [that] for a long time and we’re getting the same result.”
Southers and Salinas said that they had always been aware of police misconduct and abuse through personal experiences but there has been an increase in public consciousness through video technology. While these issues have existed long before, technology has made them seem more prevalent and increased awareness.
“If you’ve been tasked to protect and to serve, and you have violated that oath, or you have not been the protector, you haven’t actually lived up to the responsibility that comes with being a law enforcement officer,” said Salinas who is president and chief information officer at Dreamview, a globally scalable technology company that provides creative strategy and content solutions to companies around the world.
As a former assistant chief in charge of Homeland Security and Intelligence and a former Santa Monica Police Department background investigator Southers said he understands firsthand the difficult process involved with firing a police officer. Even when departments fire officers, Southers said, other departments may reinstate dismissed personnel 23% of the time. In California, and four other states including New Jersey and Massachusetts, police officers keep their certifications without having to repeat training even after being fired, which Southers said can be attractive to hiring departments as the officers already have experience and certification. In this way, Southers said officers who are fired for misconduct can end up bouncing from department to department.
“We felt that [LEWIS] is a way to keep people who have been fired out of the profession, because it takes a lot to be fired,” he said. “If that’s happened, and they received due process, they need to find something else to do.”
The institute is currently working with student volunteers and organizations, as well as accepting local tips, to compile and populate data on police misconduct. Using public information, those working on the LEWIS registry have accumulated 200 entries from the last three years alone, while complying with officer privacy policies.
“The public’s going to be a big part of this; you would not believe how many people have contacted us to say ‘Here’s a link to the officers that were fired from my town that you may not know about,’” Southers said. “It’s been great, so this is a real grassroots effort where we’re counting on the public to not only help us identify these officers but to then hold their agencies accountable.”
Southers also said the system received support from law enforcement across the country, with 22 agencies volunteering to participate in a beta test for cybersecurity, including all of the PAC-12 and University of California law enforcement chiefs. According to Southers, two databases will be available, one to the public, and another that is password encrypted for law enforcement to search the records of specific officers during the hiring process.
While SCI continues to engage with authors of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which is currently in legislation and would address a wide range of issues related to policing practices and law enforcement accountability, Salinas said he hopes the registry will provide great police research and framework in support of the bill.
“I think we have provided a framework that can stand up at the national level, that already has the buy-in from all the stakeholders,” Salinas said. “It’s one of those things where, to be able to get something like this passed in the very contentious environment that we find ourselves in, to me is a testament of the whole team.”
Lauren Brown, a postdoctoral researcher with SCI, said public support for the database has been positive, with many reaching out and notifying the institute about police misconduct they personally experienced or heard about.
To ensure an objective body can review the registry’s data and make evidence-based decisions on strategic objectives and entries, the institute will also launch the LEWIS Advisory Board, which will be composed of community and law enforcement stakeholders who are not involved in the day-to-day operations of SCI.
“It is not so much about what Dr. Southers or Dr. Salinas or what I feel is important in terms of who might be eligible to be entered into the database, but what our colleagues and peers think, in their experience, given their perspectives and their expertise,” Brown said. “I think that we can build a collective body with various perspectives and experiences, and that just strengthens the credibility, the decisions of that governing body.”
As SCI prepares for the LEWIS registry to launch, Southers said he hopes the registry will play a role in changing police culture for the better and address the long history of police misconduct in the U.S., and will reflect well on John Lewis’s legacy.
“If you have an agency where officers are engaged in a certain kind of misconduct in 2021 and they were engaged in the same kind of misconduct 30 years ago, that’s a problem,” Southers said. “Those are the kinds of trends and patterns we want to look at. It’s time for the public to start holding agencies accountable for not making any progress, not making any changes and correcting the things that are wrong with them.”