DENVER (AP) — The discovery that a Cleveland officer who shot and killed a 12-year-old boy last month had washed out at another police force highlights what some experts call an unnerving truth about policing: Departments don't always dig deeply enough into recruits' pasts.
Cleveland police officials didn't learn until after the Nov. 22 shooting that Officer Timothy Loehmann's former supervisors at a suburban department noted in his personnel file his "dismal" handgun performance and emotional immaturity. The file shows a deputy chief recommended firing him, but he resigned first.
The Cleveland department has since changed its hiring policy to require reviews of publicly available personnel files.
Authorities say Loehmann believed Tamir Rice, who was playing with a pellet gun, had a real firearm. Loehmann is white and the youngster was black. The shooting added fuel to a nationwide debate about police use of force against blacks in such places as New York City and Ferguson, Missouri.
The Cleveland case "underscores the need for better vetting," said John DeCarlo, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has studied hiring practices. "We have to be more aware of red flags."
Police departments typically do a criminal background check and administer a psychological or personality exam, but there are no national standards for screening applicants, he said.
As a result, some departments dig through prior employment files and some don't, relying instead on interviews with former supervisors or co-workers who are not always forthcoming or honest, and with the candidate's family and neighbors.
In some cities, such as Denver, retired police and firefighters do those interviews.
In Ohio, personnel files of government employees are public records, so details on Loehmann's time at the Independence department in 2012 were available to Cleveland officials.
In other states, agencies release records only with an applicant's permission. But most police departments require applicants to sign a waiver making those files available.
Surveillance video showed Loehmann shot the boy within two seconds of pulling up in his patrol car. A grand jury will consider whether to charge the officer.
Loehmann, who joined Cleveland's force in March, hasn't commented on the shooting. The police union president has defended the officer's actions.
Authorities have not made any link between Loehmann's past job performance and the shooting, but Tamir's family has filed a lawsuit accusing Cleveland of negligence in hiring him without looking further into his past.
No agency appears to keep statistics on the number of officers who make it onto police departments despite checkered pasts or how many wash out for reasons that should have come to light sooner.
The problem is hard to quantify because an officer's background often doesn't come to light unless there is a problem, such as a shooting or misconduct, said Mike Aamodt, a retired professor at Radford University in Virginia who taught courses in employee selection.
Aamodt said the problem may not be widespread, since thousands of good recruits are hired by departments every year. But even a single case is concerning and gives officials reason to review their practices, he said.
Police in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, overhauled their screening process after hiring an officer who later pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting six women during traffic stops. Officials had failed to discover that he had domestic violence allegations and an assault charge against him before hiring him in 2008.
The department now relies on in-house recruiters to conduct background checks, rather than outsourcing the task, spokesman Rob Tufano said.
Michael Vagnini, a former Milwaukee police officer serving time for conducting illegal strip searches on drug suspects, was hired despite allegations he sexually assaulted a female officer while he was a dispatcher for a different department, according to a federal lawsuit. The suit says Milwaukee police accepted Vagnini's "false and incomplete" version of events rather than checking a disciplinary file that contained witness accounts.
In the late 1980s, Washington police, rushing to hire officers to meet a congressional mandate, brought on scores of recruits without completing thorough background checks. Many had criminal pasts and were later fired or charged with crimes ranging from shoplifting and assault to murder.
Departments should routinely study their own hiring programs and make improvements by scrutinizing their recent hires, Aamodt said.
"You look for mistakes. If you hired someone and the person didn't work out, what did we miss?" he said.
Improving background checks could be as simple as paying better attention, said Cheryl Dorsey, a retired Los Angeles police sergeant who once conducted interviews with prospective officers.
Dorsey said departments need to be sure they are pulling personnel files when they can, talking to former co-workers and having face-to-face conversations with applicants to get a sense of who they are aside from what's on paper.
"We're arming these people. Wouldn't you want to know everything about this person's stability, their conduct, their use of common sense?" she said.
SYDNEY (AP) — The siege at the Sydney cafe had been going on for more than five hours and 82-year-old John O'Brien had become convinced the gunman was insane and they would likely all end up dead.
And so he made a decision, one he knew came with a cost: he was going to try to escape.
O'Brien — a former professional tennis player who played at Wimbledon — looked at the gunman who was at the other end of the cafe, barricaded behind tables and chairs. The man had forced two or three young women to stand in front of him as human shields, so police snipers couldn't take shots at him.
O'Brien glanced up at Stefan Balafoutis, a lawyer, who was standing, as ordered, with his hands against the window. The younger man had his eyes closed.
"I said to the barrister, look, this is not going to end well, this guy will never get out of here alive, and he's going to take everyone with him," O'Brien told The Associated Press in the first detailed account from a hostage who was held inside the cafe.
He whispered his plan to Balafoutis. The lawyer replied: "Good idea."
O'Brien was exhausted and was wondering at times if he was in a dream. He hadn't eaten since early in the morning, before their ordeal began, when he'd ordered a piece of raisin toast and a cappuccino.
He thought the coffee at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place was creamy and delicious, albeit overpriced. He liked the chocolates on display, a point of difference at the cafe. He'd visit a few times a year, often after an appointment with his eye doctor like the one he'd had that morning.
O'Brien was eating his toast when 50-year-old Man Haron Monis strode in, wearing a bandanna with Arabic writing. He pulled out a shotgun. O'Brien looked at it, thinking it was the size of a tennis racket. He knew right away the situation was dire. The gunman grabbed Tori Johnson, the 34-year-old cafe manager, ordering him to lock the door. O'Brien said Monis was immediately aggressive and belligerent.
There were 17 people in the cafe that Monday who became the gunman's hostages. Several were cafe staff in their early 20s. The customers included three lawyers and four bank workers who had popped in from nearby offices. O'Brien was the oldest while Jarrod Hoffman, a 19-year-old university student and a cafe staffer, was the youngest.
Monis ordered the customers to stand with their hands on the cafe window and to hold up a black Shahada flag with the Islamic declaration of faith written on it. O'Brien said he stood with his hands on the window for 30 minutes, or maybe 45 — it was hard to tell — before telling the gunman how old he was and saying he needed to sit down.
It was his first challenge to the gunman's authority and a bit of a ruse, he said. He felt stronger than he was letting on. He's remarkably fit for his age. He still plays competitive tennis, and is among the best in Australia in his age group. As a young man, in 1956, he made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Monis complained but relented, allowing O'Brien and a few others to sit.
The hours ticked by as the gunman tried to use the hostages to relay his odd demands on social media: to be delivered a flag of the Islamic State group and to speak directly to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
O'Brien would sometimes rest his head on the table. He thought about his wife, Maureen, whose brother had died two weeks earlier. He thought about his two daughters. And he thought about the gunman, who he became convinced was mad.
O'Brien quietly slipped out of his seat and sat on the floor. He'd noticed a small gap between the wall and a large advertising placard, which was perhaps 10 feet (3 meters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 meters) high. He figured the gap was less than a foot (0.3 meter) wide but he knew he had to squeeze through if his plan was to work.
He struggled, trying several times and failing. Finally, he made it through. Now the placard was obscuring him from the gunman. He lay down, looking up at a large green button. But he wasn't sure if it would open the glass doors. If the button didn't work, he figured, he would be seen by the gunman and killed.
Also weighing on his mind was the thought of leaving the others behind. He didn't want to, of course, and he had no way of knowing how the gunman might react.
"I was terribly worried for them," he said.
But there was no turning back. He reached up and pushed the green button and a moment later, at 3:37 p.m., he was free.
The images of O'Brien running toward the police in his blue blazer, glancing back with Balafoutis close behind, were played around the world. The men put their hands in the air as they reached the heavily clad officers. O'Brien took a step back out into the street, gesturing back toward the cafe, before an officer pushed him behind the front line and to safety.
Over the following hours, several more hostages escaped. The siege ended just after 2 a.m. in a barrage of gunfire when police rushed in to free the remaining captives. Two hostages, including Johnson, the cafe manager, were killed. So was the gunman.
Johnson would be hailed a hero, after reports he brought the standoff to an end by wrestling Monis for the shotgun, saving the lives of most of his fellow hostages.
O'Brien certainly considers Johnson a hero. He says he can't sleep and he can't stop thinking about Johnson and the other victim, Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old mother of three.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Motorists at the nation's busiest border crossing were accustomed to waiting hours while vendors paraded between lanes with everything from sliced papaya and hot oatmeal to sombreros and ceramic mugs. Now, thanks to a $741 million construction project, they may not have enough time to lower their windows and order a cappuccino.
Waits to enter San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, during the morning rush have dropped to less than 45 minutes from two hours since vehicle lanes were added in September. It can be less than 10 minutes during lulls, compared to a few months ago when waits topped four hours on busy weekends.
"I lost so much time that it made me cry," said Tijuana resident Alexandra Acua, driving a friend to the San Diego airport during a recent Monday morning rush. She had stopped crossing years ago because the jams were too stressful. "Now, I'm happy."
Reviews of the upgraded crossing are overwhelmingly positive. Delays have dropped between 50 percent and 75 percent, depending on the day and hour, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Shorter lines have fueled a 20 percent increase in passengers, luring more Americans to Mexico for family visits or getaway weekends and alleviating a nightmarish commute for many who live in Mexico and work, shop and go to school in the U.S.
One of every 13 people who come to the U.S. goes through San Ysidro. It's nearly twice as active as the busiest crossing on the Canadian border, in Buffalo, New York. The crossing handles about 50,000 motorists and 25,000 pedestrians daily, more people than the top two U.S. airports for international arrivals combined — New York's John F. Kennedy and Miami.
About 1 of every 3 who cross at San Ysidro is a U.S. citizen, one is a U.S. legal resident, and the remainder come from other countries, mostly Mexico, said Pete Flores, Customs and Border Protection's San Diego field office director. A 2012 survey by research firm Crossborder Group Inc. found about seven of 10 of those who cross at San Ysidro live in Tijuana.
Among the regular commuters benefiting from the decrease wait times is Rene Peralta, who lives in Mexico to be near family and save money. "I earn in dollars, but I live in pesos," he said. The dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, who pays $600 a month for a three-bedroom house, has crossed regularly since grade school in San Diego and now teaches architecture at Woodbury University in San Diego. He has saved several hours in traffic each week since the upgrades.
Replacing the 1970s facility had been a priority for regional leaders since at least 2001, when heightened concern about terrorism led to the unbearable lines. A 2006 study by the San Diego Association of Governments estimated that border congestion cost the region $6 billion a year, mostly from lost productivity and forgone trips.
The renovations have replaced administrative offices, expanded vehicle inspection areas and erected two inspection booths in most of the 25 lanes under a new sunlit canopy.
The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce says sales grew about 20 percent in the San Diego community during the first month, and a Crossborder Group survey of 344 motorists from Nov. 28 to Dec. 10 found 95 percent who crossed in the previous month said wait times were better or much better.
"It's had a great impact," Tijuana Mayor Jorge Astiazaran said. "Traffic is flowing again."
Inspectors remain on guard for those who disguise liquid methamphetamine in soda bottles and pack heroin tar in engine compartments. They're also keeping watch for people trying to enter the U.S. illegally and have found people hiding in gas tanks, under floorboards — and even sewn into a seat.
"Any day anything can happen here," Flores said.
More improvements are planned. Construction should begin soon on a new pedestrian crossing to ease wait times that regularly stretch to three hours for people on foot. Additional vehicle lanes also are planned.
Still, not everyone is pleased. Street vendors say their sales have fallen dramatically and will drop more when the expansion is completed.
"When they opened the lanes, it hurt us tremendously," Guadalupe Zamora said on a slow morning as she surveyed the crowd. Zamora had wheeled a cart with cellphone accessories almost daily for five years at the crossing. She now goes mainly on weekends. "For the general public," she added, however, "it's a good thing."
PERRY, Ga. (AP) — Authorities say a hair stylist who used to own a Centerville salon has been sentenced to 30 years in prison after being convicted of molesting two teenage boys and sexually exploiting a third boy.
The Telegraph reports that 35-year-old Matthew Caleb Pierce on Tuesday was given the 30-year prison term with no possibility of parole.
Prosecutors said Pierce engaged in sex acts with one teenager while the boy was under the influence of alcohol Pierce had given him.
Last month, a Houston County jury found Pierce guilty of engaging in sex acts with another teenager who was under the influence of prescription drugs Pierce gave him.
During the trial, Pierce testified that the teenagers, all 14 at the time, made up the stories to avoid getting into trouble.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The names of companies that provide Ohio with lethal injection drugs would be shielded under a proposal the state House is poised to vote on Wednesday.
Some lawmakers have said the bill is needed to restart executions in the state. But prosecutors who want a condemned child killer executed in February say the legislation will undoubtedly lead to court challenges, and they're confident the procedure won't happen as scheduled.
The bill is among several the House planned to vote on as lawmakers finish work for the two-year legislative session.
The Senate passed the lethal injection drug bill last week. If the House approves it, the measure would go to Republican Gov. John Kasich.
Shielding the names of companies that provide lethal injection drugs is necessary to obtain supplies of the drugs by protecting drugmakers from harassment, according to bill supporters.
Problems finding supplies of lethal drugs have created a de facto moratorium on executions in Ohio, which a decade ago was one of the country's busiest death penalty states.
Ohio executed just one inmate this year: Dennis McGuire, who snorted and gasped during much of the 26-minute procedure using a two-drug combo never tried before. Concerns about that execution led to delays of other executions.
Opponents of the lethal injection bill say concerns about harassment are overblown and it's naive to think the bill can truly protect companies' names from being revealed.
The anonymity for companies — which would last 20 years — was requested by lawmakers after prosecutors said executions wouldn't happen in Ohio without such protection. It's aimed at compounding pharmacies that mix doses of specialty drugs.
Ohio's first choice of an execution drug is compounded pentobarbital — used frequently in Texas and Missouri — but the state has been unable to obtain it. Its second choice — simultaneous doses of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller — led to McGuire's prolonged execution and a nearly two-hour-long execution in Arizona in July.
In addition, the bill creates a committee to study "the manner and means" of how executions are carried out. At issue is whether other methods already ruled constitutional — such as the electric chair — should be considered. The state abolished electrocution as an option more than a decade ago.
The bill also shields the names of participants in Ohio executions.
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's port city is getting ready for its seventh Moon Pie over Mobile celebration on New Year's Eve.
Officials say entertainment at the outdoor celebration will include the Village People and Evelyn "Champagne" King. The start of the new year will be celebrated by a 12-foot-tall Moon Pie descending from the 34-story RSA Trustmark Building.
The festivities begin at 6 p.m. with the opening of a resolution wall. The music starts at 7 p.m.
Mobile isn't the only Alabama city planning an outdoor celebration for New Year's Eve. Montgomery officials say the city will have live music, fireworks and confetti in the entertainment district downtown.