Why is it easier to lose your cosmetology license than to lose the ability to be a police officer?
Licensing isn’t just for doctors and lawyers. In Louisiana, for example, florists are licensed. Other states and localities license fortune tellers and frog farmers. For cosmetologists specifically, all states require at least 750 hours of training. Some require upwards of 2,000. For police officers, on the other hand, according to a 2016 CNN report, Massachusetts requires just 900 hours of training; Louisiana, only 360 hours.
Despite the rigorous training, the high barrier to a profession in cosmetology seems to fail to protect consumers — health violations in salons are rampant. It may be for that reason that so many states forced facilities staffed with highly trained professionals to close during the coronavirus pandemic.
As we have seen displayed so vividly in recent weeks, police training also falls short of its goals to ensure public safety. This may be tied to a startling fact: It is easier to lose a license to care for hair, skin, and nails than to lose one’s right to carry a weapon and enforce laws with the backing of the state.
This difference in accountability is gobsmacking.
While 44 states have the ability to decertify police who have committed misconduct, not all states use that power. The disparity in wielding the power to decertify officers is likely caused by the varying ways in which the statutes are written. According to Professor Roger Goldman, a law professor emeritus with Saint Louis University in Missouri: “If an officer can only be decertified for a conviction of a felony or serious misdemeanor, then there won’t be that many decertifications in that particular state.”
He makes another vital point: “But for most other professions, we don’t say that someone can only lose their license if they’ve been convicted of a crime.”
Indeed, the misconduct that can get your cosmetology license revoked is comparably trivial. In Virginia, cosmetologists who manage schools can have their licenses revoked for allowing someone “who has not obtained an instructor certificate or a temporary permit” to instruct cutting hair or painting nails. In Texas, a cosmetology license may be revoked for three instances of “failure to completely fill spa basins with correct chlorine bleach solution.”
Further, licensing varies by state, but in order to transfer one’s cosmetology license from a state to, say, Oregon, the applicant is required to verify that their license in the state in which they are certified is in good standing. Not all states offer reciprocity, but similar good-standing requirements are necessary in order to become licensed in California, Maryland, and Nevada, among others. Generally speaking, cosmetologists whose licenses are revoked in one state cannot simply move to another and start working again.
But when police officers are hired somewhere new, the same review processes do not always apply. Even in cases where an officer is decertified, he may be rehired. Oregon police officer Sean Sullivan’s peace officer license was revoked because he kissed a child on the lips in 2004. He was hired the next year in a Kansas locality as police chief. As Timothy Williams wrote in 2016, “Officers, sometimes hired with only the most perfunctory of background examinations, as Kansas officials said was the case with Mr. Sullivan, and frequently without even having their fingerprints checked, often end up in new trouble.”
Williams also points to Timothy Loehmann, who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. At his previous job, “Loehmann had resigned from a suburban police force not long after a supervisor recommended that he be fired for, among other things, an inability to follow instructions,” writes Williams. “But Cleveland officials never checked his personnel file.”
It is unfathomable that cosmetologists and many other licensed professionals are held to a higher standard than police officers.
Fortunately, some states are moving in the right direction. In 2018, South Carolina made sweeping reforms to its backward system that included creating an appeal process for decertified officers which prohibited them from serving as peace officers during the process.
There is also a National Decertification Index, which is a “registry of certificate or license revocation actions relating to officer misconduct.” But the index is fraught with problems, including the fact that only 38 of the 44 states that decertify also provide information to the index. Even worse, not every law enforcement agency reports data to the index or checks it before hiring, notes Anthony Fisher in Reason. Following Floyd’s death, the National Decertification Index has gained more attention. Professor Goldman advocates a stronger database that is used more regularly.
While the training disparity between police officers and many other professions is shocking, the accountability disparity is even more staggering. While there is room to reform licensing for cosmetologists, there is also plenty of room for reform that will prevent decertified and fired police officers from being hired elsewhere.