In the past five years, 22 Oklahoma City police officers have left the department after facing internal investigations into alleged misconduct.
Despite this, only three officers formally have been terminated. The other 19 resigned or retired, a practice that offers some officers the chance to conceal their pasts as they move on with their lives.
Capt. Dexter Nelson, a spokesman for the department, said the way an officer leaves — whether through resignation, retirement or termination — is “ultimately the officer's decision.”
“The FOP, the police union, will get them an attorney … and they can get advice from counsel,” Nelson said. “But ultimately, again, whether or not they resign or let the investigation continue is up to them.”
Nelson said the reason for the higher number of resignations is simple: Resigning can, at least in some instances, provide former police officers with some kind of protection as they move on with their lives.
When prospective employers call the Oklahoma City Police Department about former officers, what happens at that point depends on the circumstances.
“If they're terminated, we can tell them that,” Nelson said. “If they resigned, we can just tell them the resignation date or the date they separated employment. But specifically, we can't tell them what the circumstances were (when the officer resigned), but if it's a law enforcement agency, we can make the file available for them to review if they wish.”
Nelson said many law enforcement agencies do come to look at former officers' personnel files, even if it presents an inconvenience.
“I used to work in Internal Affairs, and that would happen quite a bit,” he said. “And even if it was out of state, sometimes they would send an investigator. Or sometimes they would ask another agency to come over and look for them.”
With former officers who have left the department while under internal investigation, Nelson said prospective employers are the ones who have to solicit information about an applicant.
“We run into civil liability if we start handing out information that's in their file,” he said. “We make it available … but it's up to them to come look at it.”
Nelson said officers who've left under certain circumstances often avoid the issue all together.
“Most of these guys … depending on how they left … don't use us a reference,” he said.
In any case, Nelson said most officers know the system. They know the difference between resigning and being formally terminated, he said.
“If they fire me, they're going to tell everybody they fired me,” Nelson said. “If I quit, I can just quit on my own and they can't tell anybody why I quit. They know these things.”
During the past five years, only three police officers have been terminated from their jobs.
All three were “probationary” officers, meaning they recently had joined the department “and can be fired for just about any reason we can come up with,” Nelson said.