Hundreds of Georgia officers might have lied about training hours

What happened?

The problem was discovered when Cumming Police Department training officer Lt. Bryan Zimbard notice times reported for courses taken on-line did not match how long officers were recorded being on the site.

Cumming Police Department found “several” of its 15 sworn officers had falsely claimed training. The officers were suspended without pay.

Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry fired a deputy who claimed 20 hours of training was taken in eight minutes. There were problems with the hours claimed by another dozen deputies. They were required to retake the training.

Ben Hill Sheriff Bobby McLemore discovered four of 29 deputies had fudged on their training hours. Each was suspended without pay based on how many hours were involved.

Why it matters.

Certified Georgia law enforcement officers are required to have a minimum of 20 hours in continuing education training annually to ensure they stay current with trends, policies and laws, including one hour of weapons proficiency training.

So to save local agencies money and officers the time it would take to travel to training sites, the Georgia Public Safety Training Center began offering some of that training online.

Among the 38 topics offered online are policies on deadly force, how to use the data base that contains criminal histories and outstanding arrest warrants, new policies and laws, and how to identify signs of sexual exploitation of children and signs of elder abuse.

The center plans to expand online training to fire fighters and EMTs.

More than 500 Georgia law enforcement officers might have lied about taking required training online in the last year, taking advantage of a glitch in the new program that offers the online courses.

Law enforcement agencies statewide have been told to investigate whether their deputies and officers lied about completing required training. In some instances it appears officers claimed credit for hours of required training they didn’t complete. In Oconee County, for example, a deputy was fired a few weeks ago because he claimed he had completed 20 hours of training but computer records show he spent only eight minutes online.

The Peace Officers Standards and Training Council said its reviews so far suggest at least 500 police officers and deputies might have claimed credit for training they did not have. The actual number will be hard to reach because it will require chiefs and sheriffs to review POST online records for each of the 15,000 officers who did online testing in the 11 months before the problem was recognized.

The Public Safety Training Center sent a statewide memo to sheriffs and police chiefs last month after the Cumming Police Department reported finding discrepancies in some of its 15 officers’ online training records. Training officer Lt. Bryan Zimbardi said he told the chief “it was going to be a big deal and we needed to get in front of it.”

The fallout since the problem was discovered in March has ranged from officers losing training hours to dismissal. Repercussions could still be felt years hence when an implicated officer or deputy testifies in court or is involved in a shooting. Their files would show they had been accused of unethical behavior or of lying, information defense attorneys are likely to want to make sure jurors know during trials.

“That’s pretty embarrassing,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Our goal is for an officer to be who they say they are when they sit in the witness stand. If an officer would compromise something like this, it’s natural for someone to ask ‘what else would they compromise?’ Ethics and integrity in our work is paramount.”

An email from the Public Safety Training Center, which designed the training programs, said some of the problems could be attributed to a “learning curve” associated with the custom-made system.

But glitches with the program that were not detected for 11 months either did not accurately record time in training or allowed officers to click the “submit” button to get credit without going through the training.

“Since we lost the ability to track students for 11 months, we cannot say with certainty that all students attended 100 percent of the presentation,” according to the training center email. “However, I am confident that not all students were attempting to circumvent presentations for credit.”

Some say the estimate that at least 500 law enforcement officers claimed credit for training they did not have is low, and could be as much higher based on the numbers in their own agencies.

“I’m not going to condone it,” said Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who ultimately questioned the online training records of 21 percent of 60 deputies.

Another agency, which was not named, found an officer claimed completing 38 hours of training in an hour and 15 minutes.

In April 2013 the Georgia Peace Officers Training Center began offering a new Web-based training developed internally, at a one-time cost of $1,000, “as a cost savings measure,” the training center said in an email.

The previous program had cost the state $50,000 a year.

But the agency-created program allowed officers to go immediately to the end of the training and click “submit” for one or two hours of credit even if only seconds had been spent with the course.

“Word gets around. We know it went on for several months before we caught it” 11 months later, said Ken Vance, executive director of POST, which regulates and certifies law enforcement in Georgia.

But, said training center assistant director Keith Howard, “we don’t believe it’s out of control and people are lying, cheating and stealing.”

The training center technology expert who designed the program didn’t think safeguards were needed because he didn’t think law enforcement officers would lie, Howard said.

“There’s got to be safeguards,” Rotondo said. “To speak frankly, everybody needs to be supervised sometimes.”

Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore, president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said four of his 29 deputies had discrepancies in their on-line training hours. They were suspended without pay an hour for each hour their falsely claimed, because “this was an integrity problem,” McLemore said.

When McLemore asked the deputies why they did it, “their answer was we’ve taken these course several times and we knew the answers. We had no idea this was going on. All my people had plenty of hours. I don’t even know why they went online and took it anyway.”