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In law enforcement, the phrase gypsy cop is law enforcement slang for a nomadic or itinerant lawman, a peace officer who floats from department to department regardless of, or because of, misconduct or poor job performance. The phrase entered public parlance after the infamous Tulia drug stings, where itinerant lawman Tom Coleman allegedly set up innocent people, most of them black, as part of a long-term undercover operation. Several other high-profile cases in states including Texas and Alaska involved officers who served with adversity in close to 20 agencies in 15 years or less, yet they continued to evade administrative action as they went from agency to agency, sometimes serving as little as 30 days at one department, despite blatant misconduct and compelling sighs of unsuitability to serve as peace officers. The gypsy cop phenomenon has drawn national attention in recent years. The sheer size of both Alaska and Texas has provided an opportunity to avoid scrutiny of gypsy cops who may move hundreds of miles when moving to another agency. In response to this scenario, Texas, Alaska and other states have tightened mandatory administrative standards to monitor and sanction gypsy cops in recent years.
Gypsy cops traditionally thrive by moving from agency to agency as "lateral transfer candidates"; academy-trained and already certified peace officers. Lateral transfers are usually streamlined hiring actions between law enforcement agencies, vs. the arduous process of hiring a new recruit from scratch. All states have some form of a regulatory board, often called "POST" (Peace Officer Standards and Training), offices that set minimum standards for peace officers and regulate hiring, training, certification and decertification for cause of state, county, campus, special and municipal peace officers. Many such regulatory agencies are either never made aware of problem or nomadic officers, or if they are aware of such, the POST office may have limited bases to try and investigate or sanction due to reluctance of many agency heads to report problem officers. Some small agencies can have a simple and nearly instant hiring process involving only a brief interview with the mayor or chief and then a very cursory hiring process: a limited background investigation (fingerprint and criminal record checks), drug screen test and physical exam. On the other hand, major municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies may have a competitive waiting list for applicants with a step-by-step application process that requires a written aptitude examination with a minimum score that is given only a few times a year. These agencies generally also have an expanded and oftentimes exhaustive and very lengthy hiring process that can take 6 months or more and can disqualify a candidate at any step in the process for cause: credit history check, an exhaustive criminal and personal background check going back to age 16, psychological screening, polygraph, physical strength and agility testing and a comprehensive interview panel, then even in some cases, a requirement to recomplete a basic training academy for even the already certified officers. Additionally, officers with a gypsy-like history of moving from agency to agency are closely scrutinized and often rejected as applicants in larger agencies for the very reason of moving around too much, an indicator of a lack of stable work history.
Thus, while such gypsy officers may in fact be unsuited to serve in law enforcement, they oftentimes are undetected outside of their agency or they will simply not engage in serious enough misconduct or tangible substandard performance to justify termination and notification of POST offices to decertify the officer for cause. In other cases, small communities with limited budgets and legal resources may be hesitant to terminate a problem officer out of fear of a lawsuit for wrongful termination, hostile workplace or other similar claims that can create adverse publicity and be costly situations to defend legally, even if the agency ultimately prevails in court. Many gypsy cops are well-versed and experienced in knowing how to threaten and intimidate agencies and communities with costly and unflattering allegations and litigation. They will often negotiate a positive departure from an agency once they reach critical mass and are facing dismissal. Such officers are oftentimes allowed to resign in seemingly good standing and then go to another unsuspecting agency with a good recommendation from a previous chief or sheriff, who is all too happy to get rid of the problem officer. Most states have a consolidated retirement system for state, county and municipal peace officers, which is unaffected by transfers between agencies so long as continued employment occurs and can thus further provide incentive for both good and bad officers to move frequently between agencies. This is how gypsy cops can stay one step ahead of adverse discipline and termination. The process can replicate itself in some cases over a dozen times with some gypsy cops.
Police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement agency heads often privately jokingly refer to the practice of giving a bad or problem officer a good recommendation to get rid of him or her as "pass the trash". Some small agency heads knowingly and gladly hire gypsy cops because in some cases, smaller agencies may have difficulty in recruiting quality officers. Some smaller agencies can also be less desirable to serve with in some situations due to among other things, lower pay, substandard equipment, limited training and growth potential, less exciting police activity and even less prestige. Additionally, it is easier to hire a veteran officer who knows the laws of a given state and who also requires little orientation training to fill an open position. The vacancy of even one officer in a small agency of 5-10 officers or less can create substantial hardships on an agency that must provide 24-hour coverage to the community it serves. This can create a recruitment void that in turn creates a situation of sometimes desperation that may lend credibility to the old joke in law enforcement that certain agency heads will hire anyone as long as the candidate is a "warm, breathing body".
Absent of overt criminality or major misconduct, it is oftentimes quite difficult to prove that a cop is bad or at what point he-she becomes a gypsy cop.
- The new Partridge dictionary of slang and unconventional English (Reprint. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. 2007. p. 943. ISBN 0415259371.
- Merriam-Webster's pocket guide to English usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. 1998. p. 178. ISBN 0877795142.
- Garner, Bryan A. (2009). Garner's modern American usage (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 405. ISBN 0195382757.
- Baskin, [by] H.E. Wedeck with the assistance of Wade. Dictionary of gypsy life and lore. New York: Philosophical Library. ISBN 0806529857.
- Garner, Bryan A. A dictionary of modern legal usage (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 400. ISBN 0195384202.
- Dictionary of race, ethnicity and culture (1. publ., [Nachdr.]. ed.). London: Sage. 2002. p. 291. ISBN 0761969004.
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