Over the course of his 17-year law enforcement career, Gioconda Lewis was fired or forced to resign from five agencies in Georgia.
There was the time he allegedly drove a patrol car on a suspended license, another when he shot a suspect in violation of department policy, and later used government computers to send sexually charged emails.
Despite his troubles, Lewis kept landing jobs at law enforcement agencies, often on college campuses. There was a reason, according to Lewis, he kept returning to campus patrol even though the pay and prestige were often lower than traditional police forces. Once he had terminations and a disciplinary history in his record it was tough to find a job with a local municipal or county agency.
“I knew colleges would hire me,” he said. “I was pretty much stuck.”
While extreme, Lewis’ case highlights a problem across Georgia. Many colleges and universities have a quality deficit when it comes to the officers they are hiring to protect students and police their campuses.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found 13 percent of the 1,413 officers working on 63 college campuses across Georgia have been fired or forced out of a previous job. That compares with about 6 percent of officers working at local county or municipal police agencies statewide, according to data obtained in March 2017 from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST).
The AJC analysis comes as police agencies across the country, including schools and colleges, face heightened scrutiny from a public armed with cell phone cameras and demands for better accountability. This month, another cell phone video surfaced that raised fresh questions about the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill Georgia Tech student in September. The video renewed criticism of Tech’s department for not equipping its officers with Tasers and for failing to require them to take the GBI’s in-depth crisis intervention training. No determination has been made about the officer’s conduct as the GBI investigates and the student’s family prepares to sue.
Also this month, an incident in West Texas showed the dangers campus police can face. When a Texas Tech freshman arrested on a drug charge was brought to the campus police station, the student produced a gun and fatally shot a campus officer through the head.
Both instances underscore the high stakes for campus police. Even routine calls can quickly take a tragic turn.
The offenses discovered in the AJC review of dismissals ranged from domestic violence to excessive force to a training supervisor who accidentally shot a cadet with a wax bullet. Some officers were arrested for driving under the influence, while others lied to their superiors. In many cases, the misconduct occurred before officers went to work for colleges, and the schools hired them even though their POST disciplinary histories were readily available to chiefs with the click of a mouse.
The percentage of officers in each department with past problems also ranged widely by college. Paine College in Augusta and Andrew College in Cuthbert both have tiny departments with five or six officers, but roughly 80 percent of them had past problems, according to POST records obtained in March of 2017. Those records showed about half of Clark Atlanta University’s 16 officers had previous problems.
Many of the agencies with the highest percentage of checkered officers were smaller college forces. That matches the profile of many small police departments across Georgia where a higher percentage of officers have troubled histories than those in large metropolitan departments.
Larger public colleges and universities showed a lower tolerance for officers with troubled records. The police departments at Georgia Gwinnett College and University of West Georgia had no officers who’d been forced out of a previous job, POST data showed. About 6 percent or fewer had been forced out at the largest campus forces, including University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State.
Law enforcement experts say the challenges facing campus police are nothing new. Those officers have long fought the bias in law enforcement that they aren’t real police. The improved economy has led to fewer people seeking law enforcement work and the lower pay at some smaller colleges limits the pool of qualified candidates. And turnover is a common problem.
But the AJC uncovered anecdotal evidence of another factor that comes into play: troubled police officers are sometimes hired by campus police chiefs who themselves have blemished records and believe in giving second chances.
‘I’ll give people a second chance’
Carver College’s police department in south Atlanta, serving a student body of 150, was founded just over a decade ago. The department is mix of volunteers and paid officers.
Roughly 40 percent of its force of 15 or so officers have problems in their history, the AJC found, and the tone was effectively set by the department’s first chief, Joseph L. Woods.
Woods had been fired or resigned in lieu of termination from his five previous jobs before he founded the department in March 2006, according to POST records. The records show the agency has taken action against his police license twice, including a 24-month suspension in 2009 for a case that opened before he came to Carver and was still going on when he resigned in 2007.
His replacement, R.J. Collins, had been terminated from two previous jobs, according to POST records, but Collins disputes that conclusion. He says he resigned in the face of unethical actions by superiors. Still, POST put him on probation for 12 months in 2005.
Collins, who now does the hiring for the department, said just because an officer may have taken some falls that doesn’t mean they can’t overcome their missteps.
“I’ll give people a second chance sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not a good fit for a particular department. It doesn’t mean they are bad officer.”
Still, at least two questionable hires occurred during his tenure. In 2008, the department hired an alleged flasher who’d been accused of exposing himself to a female motorist during a traffic stop while he was an officer with the Lithonia Police Department. Carver hired Steven Wayne Turner two months after Turner was forced out at Lithonia and while POST had an open investigation on him.
Less than a year later, Turner was accused of of exposing himself to three women while driving in a Carver patrol vehicle near the campus. He was allowed to resign from the school, but POST revoked his certification.
Chief fights to reinstate officer
Michael F. Nemard’s police career in Georgia appeared over after a violent domestic dispute with his former wife in 2003 led to his arrest.
At the time, he was a lieutenant with the College Park police department, but resigned in lieu of termination after the violent episode. POST revoked his police certification and Nemard pleaded guilty to simple assault and simple battery — both misdemeanors.
During the course of the investigation, three women — his former wife, a previous ex-wife and a former girlfriend — all told investigators similar stories of violence, records show. One said he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. Another said he placed a revolver in her mouth and cocked the hammer. And a third woman described how he said he could kill her and get away with it because he would investigate the crime himself.
When he appealed to POST in 2010, he described how he’d quit drinking, became involved in his church and had apologized to his ex-wife. He said he’d turned his life around, remarried and received a pardon for the domestic violence episode.
Chief Collins went to bat for him, too. The chief sent a letter to POST on Nemard’s behalf, describing how he’d been performing unarmed campus security.
“It is my belief that Mr. Nemard is a man of strong moral character and has a deep faith in God,” Collins wrote. “He also brings with him many years of law enforcement experience, training and talent that would be invaluable to Carver College Police Department…like most of us in this profession, he chose this career because he has a passion to protect and serve.”
POST reinstated his certification in March 2011 and Carver put him to work as a certified officer. He has risen through the ranks ever since and in May he was promoted to captain.
Nemard said he never tried to hide what happened in his past and he owned up to the actions that nearly ended his career. He acknowledges the file on his case is hard to look at. He said he worked hard to get to a point where he received a second chance and is grateful for the opportunity his chief offered.
He believes past mistakes have led to wisdom and empathy that have made him a better officer.
“If we’re allowed to come back and practice the profession we love, we cherish that,” he said. “We do that in a humble way.”
Collins said he checked Nemard’s record before hiring him, and was partly influenced by the notion of forgiveness embedded in Carver College’s Christian tradition. Despite Nemard’s guilty plea and a letter in Nemard’s POST file where he admits to striking his wife, Collins viewed the former wife’s allegations as something said in the heat of the moment.
“This was years ago and she retracted it,” Collins said. “I gave him a shot. He’s been excellent.”
Specialized demands for campus police
Some campus police chiefs don’t endorse the second-chance approach to hiring and take a harder line on officer’s disciplinary history.
“I wouldn’t want to work at a place that I have to hire anybody coming down the pike,” said former University of Georgia Police Chief Chuck Horton who retired in 2004 after 28 years with the department. “I wouldn’t want to do that. Somebody resigning five times and they have post investigations, then you are going to give them a gun? A Taser? Maybe a rifle? I wouldn’t do that.”
There are other factors that also impact the quality of officer found on college campuses.
A 2006 survey by Campus Safety magazine found starting salaries for campus police were, on average, 14 percent less than traditional police. The survey didn’t account for tuition incentives, often a hiring perk, but low pay was the primary cause of high turnover, the magazine found.
A survey conducted two years ago by the magazine found the improving economy had driven up pay for campus police, but campus security leaders were still concerned about staffing levels, according to Robin Hattersley-Gray, executive editor of the magazine. She said campus policing requires a unique skill set that not all officers trained in traditional departments posses. Factor in the opioid crisis contributing to a shortage of skilled officers and the competition for good ones can be fierce, she said.
“I hear it as they need more people and they need more money to run their department, which translates to salaries,” she said. “All those things make finding good law enforcement officers really challenging.”
In Georgia, a spate of new or expanding departments at technical schools and smaller colleges over the past 15 years has also contributed to the pinch.
The idea that some colleges would be settling for officers with troubled pasts is concerning, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. The standards and training for those positions should be equal or higher because of the unique nature of the work, said Canady, who started his career as a dispatcher at the Jacksonville State University police department in Alabama.
“We see a sense of urgency about it,” he said. “There’s a lot that an officer needs to learn about working with young people whether it’s elementary age, high school, college age. It’s a whole different setting when you are working with hundreds or thousands of students (who) you’re working in close proximity every day.”
‘I got a bad rap’
Gioconda Lewis’s tenure as a Spelman College police officer would lead to more problems, but none of it should have surprised his bosses at the women’s college in south Atlanta.
When he was hired in August 2009, Lewis had been fired or forced out of four earlier law enforcement jobs, including three on college campuses and faced discipline from POST, records show.
He acknowledges he made some mistakes, but he says he didn’t deserve to lose his jobs and knows officers who have done far worse.
“I feel I got a bad rap,” he said. “I feel like sometimes being truthful, it worked against me.”
Yet, the record in POST’s files raise significant questions about his judgment as a police officer.
Two years after getting fired as a corrections officer at a state detention center in 2001, Lewis attended a police training academy and became a certified police officer in August 2004. After getting laid off from the Oglethorpe County sheriff’s office in January 2005 due to a reduction in staff, Lewis got his first campus police job at Agnes Scott College the next month.
But less than a year into his tenure at the Decatur campus, officials discovered he’d been driving a patrol car on a suspended license. He was fired in January 2006. (Lewis said a relative, who had recently died, had stolen his identity and he hadn’t known his license had been suspended.)
In August of that year, Georgia Perimeter College hired him, but he resigned in lieu of termination months later after he shot a non-violent suspect off campus and outside the department’s jurisdiction. The shooting was ruled legally justified, but his bosses accused him of violating department policy. POST initially sought to revoke his police certification, but Lewis fought the punishment.
By the time an agreement was reached in Dec. 2008, Lewis had been working as a public safety officer at Griffin Technical College for more than a year.
His supervisor, Kenneth Troisi, who Lewis describes as a friend, had written a letter to POST on his behalf in November 2008 when Lewis had been fighting to keep his police certification. Troisi said Lewis had received several commendation letters and had above average job evaluations.
“Mr. Lewis is a highly ethical person and a pleasure to work with,” Troisi wrote to the POST council.
The consent order Lewis signed on Dec. 28, 2008, included a public reprimand by POST, but it allowed him to keep his police certification on the condition he accept 12 months probation. The order said he had to stay out of trouble or risk getting his certification revoked.
Just months later, however, Lewis was in trouble again.
Griffin Tech had merged with another college and taken the name Southern Crescent Technical College. A sergeant, Lewis was a one of the first officers on board with the newly merged agency. But records show he was accused of soliciting sex on school computers and investigators found sexually explicit emails during their review. Lewis told the AJC he was reprimanded for doing homework on the state computers. Lewis was forced to resign in July 2009.
Spelman hired him the next month.
Five strikes for Lewis
About one in five officers at Spelman’s police department have been fired or forced out of a previous job, as of March when the AJC obtained data for its analysis. Money isn’t the problem.
Spelman Director of Public Safety Steve Bowser said his agency’s annual salaries start in the high $30,000 range and allow him to compete with municipal agencies in the metro area.
Bowser also acknowledged that any officer’s record is immediately available online through POST.
“Anybody that hires somebody (with a record) can’t say they didn’t know,” he said.
In the case of Lewis, Bowser said he checked his history and spoke to chiefs who’d supervised him in the past. Bowser decided to extend Lewis the benefit of the doubt.
“You’re hoping your supervision and your department structure can make a difference,” said Bowser, one of the longest serving chiefs in Georgia and someone who is well-respected by his peers.
Lewis’ job at Spelman seemed to work out for a while. But, as had happened before, he eventually found more trouble.
In October 2015, Lewis and other officers working the Spelman and Morehouse homecoming were tasked with directing traffic and patrolling campus.
At some point, Lewis started collecting money from drivers to park, even though parking was supposed to be free. It’s unclear how much money he collected, but he later said it was $100. A few days later, Bowser called him into his office and asked about the allegations. He admitted he accepted the money and within days he was fired, records show.
POST’s investigation into the matter concluded in January of this year when the agency revoked Lewis’ certification.
Lewis said he never intended to charge people for parking, but it just happened when one guy gave him $20 and said: “Thank you for all you do.”
Bowser said he’s changed his view on hiring officers with past problems. Today, he said he would make a different decision if someone applied with Lewis’ history.
“No way,” Bowser said. “Eight years ago, I might have been a kinder, gentler guy.”
Even though it was the fifth time in Lewis’ career he’d been let go, the move surprised Lewis, he said.
“It was very unfair,” he said.
Last year, Lewis earned his undergraduate degree and is working toward a masters degree in criminal justice. His goal is to one day teach policing to aspiring officers.