Part 2: Tracking Police Officer Complaints, a Justice System Committee series

If you missed Part 1, catch up by viewing it in our Learn Why We Believe Police Reform is Necessary series.

The Justice System Committee research shows that maintaining complaint records and conducting independent investigations are important steps for finding patterns in individual officers or department practices. Prior to July 2021 (when SB 5051 went into effect), complaint records at Ferndale PD, Bellingham PD, Blaine PD, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office were destroyed after six years. This practice allowed an officer’s record to frequently be wiped clean, making it difficult, if not impossible, to detect problems. Below we provide an example of how easy it has been for a problematic officer to go unnoticed.

Ferndale Police Department complaint records

The JSC looked at a summary of 52 complaint allegations filed between 2015 – 2020 for Ferndale Police Department officers that were employed at the time of our January 2021 records request. The investigation results shed light on how often the department sides with the officer’s version of events. 

  • 88% of all allegations were determined either unfounded1 or not sustained2, or the officer was exonerated3.

When it comes to complaints from the public,

  • 6% of allegations from the public were either sustained4 or founded5 (94% dismissed).

However, complaints were taken seriously from inside the organization.

  • 98% of internally-initiated allegations were either sustained or founded.

These percentages demonstrate that complaints from the public about an officer’s behavior and conduct mostly go ignored. In fact, it’s common for investigators to recommend “no further action” as a follow up to each complaint. 

Signs of a problematic police officer

When reviewing the list of complaint allegations, one officer’s name stood out – Michael Scott Langton. Officer Langton made the news recently because Ferndale PD placed him on paid leave in early October 2021 for allegedly contacting the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government extremist group, one month after the January 6 attack on the US capital. Contact with this group would seemingly put Langton in violation of the Prohibited Speech, Expression, and Conduct section of Ferndale’s police policy, which prohibits “expression that is contrary to the canons of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics” (page 1). 

According to a November 2, 2021 Bellingham Herald article, Officer Langton returned to duty after the Ferndale PD conducted a “thorough investigation” of the allegation that Officer Langton had contacted the Oath Keepers and determined it was “unfounded” because “no violation of policy or law occurred”. This determination appears to contradict the Ferndale police policy.

Connect Ferndale immediately responded to the investigation result by making a public statement and demanding that city officials update their police policy, form a community-based police oversight committee, have the allegation externally reviewed, and host a listening session.

Langton began working for Ferndale PD in August 2012 and has 17 complaints on record from 2015 to 2021 – each from a different complainant. (The officer with the next most complaints had three on record.) Most complainants accused Officer Langton of behavior that was harassing, discriminatory, rude, insulting, or overly aggressive. Five believed this treatment was because of the color of their skin. Sixteen were internally investigated and had unfounded results meaning the investigator determined the allegation was “frivolous” or “did not occur”. We noted that one complaint even stated that Langton “is known by many minorities as being The Racist Cop”.

In addition to these complaints, BuzzFeed News reported Officer Langton was named in a 2020 lawsuit alleging he illegally detained a motorist.

(Read our November 10, 2021 letter to Ferndale Mayor Hansen, Chief Turner, and Councilmembers.)

Langton’s prior career with Blaine Police Department

During his tenure with Blaine PD, Officer Langton was named in a lawsuit alleging he used excessive force on a legally-blind man in June 2011. City of Blaine settled the lawsuit in 2015 with a $129,000 payment to the plaintiff. Online research results in scant details about this case. In fact, we couldn’t locate any articles from the press until October 2021 when Officer Langton’s paid leave status made news. 

Records obtained from the City of Blaine indicate other complaints had also been made about Langton, but acquiring those records has been unsuccessful. We know, however, that at least one other Blaine resident alleges a rough encounter with Officer Langton. According to a 2011 court document, “Officer Langton treated the defendant so roughly when he arrested her that at least one witness had to avert his eyes because he could not watch the officer’s treatment of [the Blaine resident]”.

According to a 2013 letter from Blaine’s City Manager to Whatcom County District Court, it appears Officer Langton was also named in a third lawsuit. The JSC has yet to determine the allegation(s) in this case.

Did Ferndale PD know about Langton’s Blaine PD history?

It’s unclear. We know that the “comprehensive screening, background investigation and selection process” described in section 100.2 of Ferndale’s police policy doesn’t recommend reviewing an officer’s previous complaint history. Also, according to September 2012 city council meeting minutes (page 5, part C), the City immediately saved $80,000 by hiring a seasoned officer because Langton no longer needed to be trained through the police academy.

New laws have and proposed bills would address several JSC concerns, but more work is needed to increase accountability and transparency

  • New – SB 5051 added a subsection (4) to RCW 40.14.070, which requires personnel records for law enforcement officers be retained for “the duration of the officer’s employment and a minimum of 10 years thereafter”. Remember, prior to July 2021, complaint records were usually destroyed after six years. 

  • New – SB 5051 requires that departments conduct broader background checks for officers before hiring them, including checking with previous departments for any discipline history or misconduct investigations. At a national level, experts report it’s common practice for an officer to quit before an investigation is complete to keep it off their record. We don’t know if this was the case in Blaine, but the timing of Langton’s arrival in Ferndale is suspicious.

  • New – SB 5051 allows for an officer to be decertified for disqualifying conduct.

  • Proposed – HB 1203 would require any police department of 15 officers or more to establish a community oversight board responsible for fielding complaints, investigating allegations of police misconduct, making recommendations on discipline, and participating in the hiring of new police chiefs.

  • Proposed – HB 1202 would create a state cause of action allowing people to sue police officers in their individual capacity for violating people’s constitutional rights. The measure would allow police to face civil lawsuits in situations where they may be unable to be sued in federal court due to the doctrine of qualified immunity.

  • Still needed – Demographic information about the complainant or officer are not collected as part of local law enforcements’ complaint reporting or investigation process.6

  • Still needed – Complaint descriptions and the status of the investigation process are not publicly available through an open data set.

1 Unfounded = When the investigation discloses that the alleged acts did not occur or did not involve department members. Complaints that are determined to be frivolous will fall within the classification of unfounded.

2 Not sustained = When the investigation discloses that there is insufficient evidence to sustain the complaint or fully exonerate the member.

3 Exonerated = When the investigation discloses that the alleged act occurred but that the act was justified, lawful, and/or proper.

4 Sustained = When the investigation discloses sufficient evidence to establish that the act occurred and that it constituted misconduct.

5 Founded = Undefined in the police policy manual.6 See Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability Complaints open data set for what transparency can look like.

Updated 11/3/2021 to include information about Langton’s return to duty and to correct an error. The previous post included links to the wrong police policy.

Updated 11/4/2021 to include information about Connect Ferndale.

Updated 11/27/2021 to add a link to the City of Ferndale’s Oath Keeper investigation report and correct the date when Officer Langton allegedly emailed the Oath Keepers. The email was sent one month after the January 6 attack on the US Capital, not two days prior. This distinction is important because the Ferndale Police investigator implies a person might not have “reasonably known about members of the Oath Keepers” on February 4, 2021, as compared to the date of the investigation, October 14, 2021.