Badge to Badge: Should background checks be required for officers?

Published: Dec. 13, 2016 at 4:03 PM CST
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Every officer in Kansas takes an oath to never betray their badge, their integrity, their character, or the public's trust. But how confident can the public be in an officer who bounces from one badge to another?

"I can't even get a job as a welder like that," said Bill Rose, Halstead resident. "So yeah, it bothers me."

It's an issue that led the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, CPOST, to make changes a few years ago that would improve background checks.

"There would be lots of officers who would be fired, terminated for whatever reason, and they would go to the next county or the next city, or a couple of counties or cities over," said Gary Steed, CPOST Executive Director. "They would be employed there and that agency would have the same issues with the officer and they would be terminated and move on."

We're not just talking about low-ranking officers. FactFinder 12 started researching this problem after we uncovered a similar pattern with the Halstead Police Chief. The KBI opened an investigation into the Halstead Police Department in November. A month later, Chief Steve Lewis suddenly retired. We filed open records requests to look at his history in Kansas law enforcement.

We learned Lewis was first fired from the Hugoton Police Department in 1980. He went to work for Liberal Police Department for two years, followed by the Stevens County Sheriff's Office for 23 years. Lewis left there in 2005 to be the police chief back in Hugoton; the department that previously fired him. After three years there, Hugoton fired him again.

We wanted to know why.

After days of un-returned phone calls, we drove to Hugoton to ask the current police chief why she fired Lewis. She refused to speak with us. We did find Lewis at his new home in Hugoton.

"Said they wanted to go in a different direction and the interim chief ended up being appointed," said Lewis.

We asked if there were any issues that might have caused them to go in a different direction.

"Not to my... They just said they wanted to go in a different direction," he said.

After his second termination, Lewis bounced back to Stevens County; an agency that has now hired Lewis twice after being fired twice. Seven months later, he was fired for a third time. But it didn't take long for him to tack on a new badge as the Halstead police chief.

We asked Steed why some departments do not check officers' backgrounds.

"I don't really know," said Steed. "I think it probably relates to how much time it takes to do backgrounds."

We confronted Halstead City Administrator J.R. Hatfield about his vetting process. We asked if he knew Lewis was fired three times before he hired him as chief.

"I don't know anything about that," said Hatfield.

We then asked Hatfield if he did a background check on Lewis.

"I told you that's personnel," he said.

Background check or not, it's hard to believe Hatfield didn't know about Lewis' termination history when you consider how long they've known each other. Former Chief Lewis says he and Hatfield go way back.

"Over 30 years," said Lewis. He says they're friends from their time working together in Hugoton.

So we asked Lewis if the fact that he had been fired three times in the past ever came up.

"Well, I was very honest," said Lewis. "They knew my reasons for leaving. There was no secret about it."

"It's a corrupt circle and it happens a lot in small towns," said Rose.

We called every Halstead City leader to offer them a chance to speak out about the issue. Councilman Phil Adams told us when it comes to hiring, council members just "take the city administrator's word for it."

When we told Mayor William Ewert that Lewis had been fired three times before coming to Halstead, his response was "so what?" He then said people in his community "don't care."

But many of those residents tell us they absolutely do care, especially now with a KBI investigation pending.

"When they've got the power to basically do anything they want," said Rose. "They can pull you over and pull you out of your car for basically nothing."

The Harvey County Attorney tells us the KBI investigation recently focused-in on Lewis and a city official. Folks around Halstead wonder if proper background checks could've prevented all of this from the start.

"I would like to see all agencies in Kansas making use of this resource," said Steed.

There's no way to get a total of how many Kansas officers are doing this, but we can tell you in last year alone CPOST investigated every officer who was fired or resigned under questionable circumstances. Twelve have already been re-hired at new agencies in our state.