Everything That’s Wrong with Policing in America

Rogue cops, racial profiling, tainted cases, and the lack of consequences.

When I came across the Washington Post headline “Fairfax seeks to dismiss 400 convictions in cases brought by one officer,” I was expecting a feel-good story of justice being served. Alas, it was just another story about a rogue cop that was allowed to patrol the streets for far too long.

Fairfax County prosecutors are moving to throw out more than 400 criminal convictions based on the testimony or work of a former patrol officer who is accused of stealing drugs from the police property room, planting drugs on innocent people and stopping motorists without legal basis, court filings show. In a hearing Friday, a Fairfax judge said he was inclined to vacate felony drug and gun convictions against a former D.C. firefighter and order him released from prison next week after serving nearly two years because of the actions of former officer Jonathan A. Freitag.

Fairfax police said they began investigating Freitag after receiving a tip about him in July 2019. The police department took him off the streets. Freitag, now 25, resigned in May 2020 after the FBI had joined Fairfax County in a criminal investigation of him. But even after The Washington Post first reported the allegations against Freitag in June 2020, he was hired by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida in August 2020. The Fairfax human resources department reported to Brevard that the former officer had never been “subject to disciplinary action” and “there are no disciplinary records in his file.”

Freitag was fired by the Brevard County sheriff on April 1 after The Post inquired about his status there. Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey then sent a scathing two-page letter to interim Fairfax police chief David M. Rohrer accusing Fairfax of providing “misleading representations to our legitimate efforts to investigate” Freitag. Ivey said it was “outrageous that an individual such as Mr. Freitag, with a history of alleged misconduct at the Fairfax County Police Department, had become a member of our agency and placed in a position that may have negatively impacted our citizens due to your agency’s misrepresentations.”

Fairfax County’s human resources department provided Freitag with a letter soon after his resignation which said, “You resigned from the position in good standing, your employment was entirely favorable and you are eligible for re-hire,” and Freitag in turn submitted that to Brevard County, documents released by Brevard show. Fairfax police said that letter led Brevard to query the human resources department instead of the police department. Brevard is now investigating the cases Freitag made during his seven months there, sheriff’s office spokesman Tod Goodyear said.

Freitag served on the Fairfax County, Virginia (where I’ve lived since 2004) force for just three years before being discovered. But what a three years it was. As reported in the above-linked June 2020 WaPo story,

When Fairfax police began an internal review of the officer, they randomly selected 40 of his traffic stops out of nearly 1,400 conducted during his three years on the street, according to the May filing in Fairfax Circuit Court. “In each one of the 40 randomly selected cases,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Kyle Manikas wrote, “the basis used by the officer to justify the stop, as memorialized in the police report, was untruthful.”

“Moreover,” Manikas added, “there appears to have been a racial component with respect to the drivers that the officer unlawfully stopped.” Police and prosecutors declined to say why they thought the traffic stops had a racial component. But prosecutors said they have been dismissing the officer’s pending cases.

The officer, Jonathan Freitag, 24, has not been charged with any crimes and was not formally disciplined by the department, although he was suspended without pay during its investigation, a police spokesman said. The investigation and Freitag’s suspension began in September, spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, and the investigation is continuing.

So a rookie cop was apparently allowed to patrol the streets for three years with minimal supervision. Every single stop he made was easily determined to be fraudulent. Yet, not only wasn’t he charged for his crimes (surely, filing a false police report would qualify even if nothing else is provable) but he was allowed to resign from the force and given a clean bill of health so that he could go on to patrol the streets of Brevard County, Florida.

Now, I suppose it’s good that Fairfax and Brevard both took him off the beat once they knew what was going on. (Although, in Brevard’s case, one wonders whether they would have done so absent attention from WaPo.) But this is just an awful, awful system.

Fairfax PD is a relatively professionalized force. The starting salary is $53,969, almost exactly the median income for the county, with “an additional 5% salary step increase for every preferred qualification” such as “prior military or law enforcement training and experience, foreign language proficiency, and college degree (Associates and higher).” The screening process is about what one might expect. And, for those who aren’t already Virginia-certified officers, attendance at a police academy is required.

But it’s utterly bizarre that a 21-year-old is allowed to patrol and make stops without the supervision of a senior officer. That puts both the officer and the public in danger.

And I’m as big a stickler for due process and the rights of the accused as you’re likely to find. But there was clearly enough reason to believe that Freitag was an unfit officer that Fairfax County owed it to any other department inquiring about Freitag’s suitability to at least inform them that he had been removed from patrol for cause and that an investigation was underway.

It does look like things are getting marginally better, if too slowly:

Troubled officers leaving one department and then turning up at another has been cited by justice reform advocates as a problem with policing. There is a national database of decertified officers, and Virginia has one too, but Freitag resigned before he could be formally decertified. Beginning last month, Virginia toughened its criteria for decertification to include officers who resign for an act “that compromises an officer’s credibility, integrity, honesty, or other characteristics that constitute exculpatory or impeachment evidence in a criminal case.” But that law wasn’t in effect when Freitag left Fairfax last year.

Beyond that, while it’s great that most of the pending cases initiated by Freitag were dismissed, it’s shameful that, more than a year after the flagrancy of his misconduct became apparent, they’re just slowly going through the old cases. People should simply not be in prison based on a rogue cop’s testimony, which should be presumptively perjurious at this point.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Police
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    This is exactly why, just a few days ago, I said that “fixing the police” isn’t as simple as “getting better recruits or leadership.” There is no quick or easy fix to this problem, and we know this because so many have been tried (different training, adding “non-lethal” options, bodycams, moving towards neighborhood policing models, more-better-different training, releasing public statistics…. the list of attempted reforms has gone on and on and on again).

    This example also shows what happens to “bad” cops. Almost every major DA keeps a list of “Do not call” police–officers that they know they cannot call to the stand to testify (because of past credibility issues). There are legit places that the prosecutors will know that if X cop made a collar, then they have to drop charges/not prosecute. The problem is that these officers, because of union rules and arbitration are extremely difficult to remove from police forces. Often the best that folks can hope for is that the organization can make those folks’ lives miserable enough that they decide to quit or retire.

    In cases where they quit, what you find is that said cop does exactly what Freitag did. They’ll move to another municipality and get hired again. The commanding officers will have no idea of their past issues. Same for the prosecutors. And so the cycle starts all over again.

    Freitag’s problem, sadly, wasn’t the fact he was railroading people. It was the sheer scale and audacity of the railroading. If he had been a bit more subtle, this probably never would have been discovered.

    Oh, and also, let’s not forget that traffic stops are largely a moneymaker for police and almost every department has expectations (they would never say “quotas”) about not only how many stops an officer is expected to make but also how many citations they are going to issue (because those help fund municipalities, especially in lower-taxed areas). So it’s also the very system (both legislative and financial) that incentivizes this type of behavior.

    But it’s utterly bizarre that a 21-year-old is allowed to patrol and make stops without the supervision of a senior officer. That puts both the officer and the public in danger.

    For many municipal police/sheriff forces, once an officer has finished their probationary period, which isn’t usually that long, this is the norm.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    The department to department movement of bad cops exists everywhere and licensing doesn’t provide an answer as too often either the union protects them or the chief simply lets the bad cop resign, which doesn’t ping licensing issues. Even in a small state like NH, where most chiefs know each other, the problem exists. Most infamously, an officer that was fired or asked to resign from several departments. This cop also had a well known beef with a local petty criminal, the problem got solved when the killed each other at a traffic stop.

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  3. CSK says:

    The police unions are very, very strong. I remember a Mass. state cop telling me how extremely difficult it was to get rid of a rotten apple. The best the state cops could do was assign whoever it was to drive the length of the Mass. Pike and then start over again, just endlessly driving back and forth.

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  4. @mattbernius:

    traffic stops are largely a moneymaker for police and almost every department has expectations

    This has to stop. I expect it probably won’t, but lining revenue generation to armed agents of the state is guaranteed to go wrong with some frequency.

    It also undermines the alleged raison d’etre of police forces (e.g., law enforcement, keeping the peace, etc.).

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    A good way to reduce the predation through traffic stops, is for the revenue to go to the state where it is redistributed based on population. Under that system, no community is given a reason to turn LE into revenue agents. Though, it doesn’t stop the use of quality of life violations for pretext stops.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    People should simply not be in prison based on a rogue cop’s testimony, which should be presumptively perjurious at this point.

    Here’s a question for you: if you’re on a jury, do you believe that the cop on the stand is not a rogue cop?

    Without corroborating evidence — body cam footage, etc., — I see no reason to believe any of them. They’re coached on how to give testimony, so it’s always going to sound truthful.

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  7. Bruce Henry says:

    Just a little quibble, it looks as though you have conflated Brevard County, FL (Cocoa Beach area) with Broward County (Fort Lauderdale).

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  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Gustopher: Since I live in a college town where about 1/3 of the adult population are students who always exempt themselves from jury duty, the rest of us get called a lot. I’ve been summoned roughly 1.5. times per year since I’ve lived here. The answer to your question, for me, has been ‘it depends.’ Once I did lend credence to the officer and twice I have not. My default position is “not.”

    On a family violence case, yes, I believed the officer. The situation in the house still clearly affected them. It was not normal ‘cop’ testimony. On the others, I’ve needed other sources of testimony beyond just the cop(s) on the scene.

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  9. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    [For profit policing] has to stop. I expect it probably won’t, but lining revenue generation to armed agents of the state is guaranteed to go wrong with some frequency.

    It also undermines the alleged raison d’etre of police forces (e.g., law enforcement, keeping the peace, etc.).

    I agree. The problem is that it would require middle and upper-class folks paying more taxes. That’s the really insideous part of this. It goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of poverty. And so this essentially shifts tax and institutional burderns on the people least able to pay for it. Which in turn drives up incarceration (usually in Jails) which lowers overall economic stability of those economically disadvantaged areas and (because housing folks in Jails costs so much) drives up costs, requiring more for-profit policing. Which, also, drives wedges between the police and overpoliced communities.

    Again the Furgeson report dives into the community impacts of that.

    This also gets to:
    @Sleeping Dog:

    A good way to reduce the predation through traffic stops, is for the revenue to go to the state where it is redistributed based on population. Under that system, no community is given a reason to turn LE into revenue agents.

    Except that most of those funds would be redistributed right back to the communities where these predatory practices often happen because they are the ones with population density and needs. Basically, the only change would be that affluent areas would have even less citations given out.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius:

    For many municipal police/sheriff forces, once an officer has finished their probationary period, which isn’t usually that long, this is the norm.

    I guess it makes sense from a dispersion/economy perspective but, sheesh, it’s just a bad idea all around. Even the Army doesn’t put people anywhere by themselves; the “buddy team” is ubiquitous.

    @Bruce Henry:

    Just a little quibble, it looks as though you have conflated Brevard County, FL (Cocoa Beach area) with Broward County (Fort Lauderdale).

    Ah! Fixed it in the post. I’ve been to both but Broward is the one I know as a county.

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  11. Mimai says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    The answer to your question, for me, has been ‘it depends.’ Once I did lend credence to the officer and twice I have not. My default position is “not.”

    Do you report this on your juror disclosure form?

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  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mimai: I haven’t been called for jury duty in ages. The last time, I had moved out of the county and haven’t reregistered to vote since I moved back, so that helped. Back when I was getting called–4 times in 3 years–my county used the “Donahue” screening thing where both the prosecution and the defense “shopped” their theory to the jury during screening. In those days, it was easy not to serve after being called. I simply waited to find a part of the presentation where a particular answer would create a disqualification. Most of our cases were meth houses, so my position in favor of drug legalization was enough.

    In one case, I think the prosecution and the defense agreed on cutting me when the defense asked me what I taught and I replied “I teach students to make and analyze arguments in essay writing.” I was the first juror cut that time. 😀

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  13. Matt says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: For about four years straight I was called into jury duty every time I was eligible. That’s how I discovered that the law had a required time period between calls. The last time I was called was for a capital murder case and I was supposed to be visiting family (who I hadn’t seen in +4 years) 1200 miles away due to a recent death of a beloved family member. Instead I was sitting in a packed room on a chair too small for me with people squeezed in knee to knee with me while trying to fill out a several page questionnaire. I was so pissed off at one point I referred to a fetus as a parasite (the victim was pregnant) and questioned the integrity of the system and police. I haven’t been called since..

    EDIT : The jury duty stuff was scheduled for the week I was supposed to be gone. SO I had to completely cancel the trip. As a result I informed my jobs that I was available. So I ended up on the schedule that week. The day after filling out the forms I was informed via call that I was expected at the court house the next day at a specific time. I was supposed to work and the court people refused to reschedule or work with me on that. So that was great.

    Also I never did make it up to see my family as crap happened including COVID which destroyed my jobs and stuff…

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  14. dazedandconfused says:

    IMO the primary problem is a loss of public trust due to quick-on-the-trigger cops, and the root cause is the instilling of an attitude that everybody is about to draw and shoot at ya during training and that becoming the general mood within far too many depts. The example shows a lack of proper training, but increasing the quality of the training and vetting does no good if the training itself is wrong.

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  15. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    I guess it makes sense from a dispersion/economy perspective but, sheesh, it’s just a bad idea all around. Even the Army doesn’t put people anywhere by themselves; the “buddy team” is ubiquitous.

    Yeah. For as much as the modern police force has modelled itself on the military, the gulf in between the two in terms of expectations and performance is incredibly wide. In part that’s due to the fact that while we have a handful of military branches, we have ~18,000 more-or-less independent law enforcement agencies in the US.

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  16. Barry says:

    @mattbernius: ” The commanding officers will have no idea of their past issues. Same for the prosecutors. And so the cycle starts all over again.”

    I disagree. An officer resigning is giving up seniority and pension rights. There’s a reason behind that (sometimes good, sometimes bad).

    I consider prosecutors and judges to be guilty.

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  17. Barry says:

    @Barry: “I consider prosecutors and judges to be guilty as bad police officers themselves. Our grimly efficient prosecution system generally fails to convict police officers, who are only brought to trial when there is very strong evidence. Our judges have systematically stripped away our rights about not being brutalized at will by the police.

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