Af­ter mis­con­duct, cops back on force

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Kimbriell Kelly, Wesley Lowery and Steven Rich

Since 2006, the na­tion’s largest po­lice de­part­ments have fired at least 1,881 of­fi­cers for mis­con­duct that be­trayed the pub­lic’s trust, from cheat­ing on over­time to un­jus­ti­fied shoot­ings. But The Wash­ing­ton Post has found that de­part­ments have been forced to re­in­state more than 450 of­fi­cers af­ter ap­peals re­quired by union con­tracts.

Most of the of­fi­cers re­gained their jobs when po­lice chiefs were over­ruled by ar­bi­tra­tors, typ­i­cally lawyers hired to re­view the process. In many cases, the un­der­ly­ing mis­con­duct was undis­puted, but ar­bi­tra­tors of­ten con­cluded that the fir­ings were un­jus­ti­fied be­cause de­part­ments had been too harsh, missed dead­lines, lacked suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence or failed to in­ter­view wit­nesses.

A San An­to­nio po­lice of­fi­cer caught on a dash cam chal­leng­ing a hand­cuffed man to fight him for the chance to be re­leased was re­in­stated in Fe­bru­ary. In the District, an of­fi­cer con­victed of sex­u­ally abus­ing a young wo­man in his pa­trol car was or­dered re­turned to the force in 2015. And in Bos­ton, an of­fi­cer was re­turned to work in 2012 de­spite be­ing ac­cused of ly­ing, drunk­en­ness and driv­ing a sus­pected gun­man from the scene of a night­club killing.

The chiefs say the ap­peals process leaves lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror. Yet po­lice agen­cies some­times sab­o­tage their own at­tempts to shed trou­bled of­fi­cers by mak­ing pro­ce­dural mis­takes. The re­sult is that po­lice chiefs have booted hun­dreds of of­fi­cers they have deemed un­fit to be in their ranks, only to be com­pelled to take them back and send them back to the streets with guns and badges.

“It’s de­mor­al­iz­ing, but not just to the chief,” said Charles H. Ram­sey, for­mer po­lice com­mis­sioner in Philadel­phia and chief in the District. Philadel­phia and the District to­gether have had to re­hire 80 fired of­fi­cers since 2006, three of them twice.

“It’s de­mor­al­iz­ing to the rank and file who re­ally don’t want to have those kinds of peo­ple in their ranks,” Ram­sey said. “It causes a tremen­dous amount of anx­i­ety in the pub­lic. Our cred­i­bil­ity is shot when­ever these things hap­pen.”

The Wash­ing­ton Post’s find­ings il­lus­trate the ob­sta­cles lo­cal po­lice agen­cies face in hold­ing their own ac­count­able at a crit­i­cal moment for polic­ing: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­di­cated that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will cur­tail the strat­egy of fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion in de­part­ments con­fronted with al­le­ga­tions of sys­temic of­fi­cer mis­con­duct, even as con­tro­ver­sial po­lice shoot­ings con­tinue to un­der­mine pub­lic con­fi­dence.

Na­tion­wide, the re­in­state­ment of fired of­fi­cers has not been stud­ied or com­pre­hen­sively tracked. No na­tional data­base logs ter­mi­na­tions. Some fir­ings re­ceive lo­cal pub­lic­ity, but many go un­re­ported. Some states shield po­lice per­son­nel records — in­clud­ing fir­ings — from pub­lic dis­clo­sure.

To in­ves­ti­gate how of­ten fired of­fi­cers were re­turned to their jobs, The Wash­ing­ton Post filed open records re­quests with the na­tion’s 55 largest mu­nic­i­pal and county po­lice forces. Thirty-seven de­part­ments com­plied with the re­quest, dis­clos­ing that they had fired a com­bined 1,881 of­fi­cers since 2006. Of those of­fi­cers, 451 suc­cess­fully ap­pealed and won their jobs back.

The of­fi­cers’ names and de­tails were avail­able in about half of the re­in­state­ment cases: 151 of the of­fi­cers had been fired for con­duct un­be­com­ing, and 88 had been ter­mi­nated for dis­hon­esty, ac­cord­ing to a re­view of in­ter­nal po­lice doc­u­ments, ap­peals records, court files and news re­ports.

At least 33 of the of­fi­cers had been charged with crimes. Of these, 17 had been con­victed, most of mis­de­meanors.

Eight of­fi­cers were fired and rehired by their de­part­ments more than once.

“To over­turn a po­lice chief’s de­ci­sion, ex­cept in cases of fact er­rors, is a dis­ser­vice to the good order of the de­part­ment,” said San An­to­nio Po­lice Chief Wil­liam Mcmanus, who in Fe­bru­ary was or­dered to re­in­state Of­fi­cer Matthew Belver for a sec­ond time. “It also un­der­mines a chief’s au­thor­ity and ig­nores the chief’s un­der­stand­ing of what serves the best in­ter­est of the com­mu­nity and the de­part­ment.”

In the District, ar­bi­tra­tors have or­dered the city to re­hire 39 of­fi­cers since 2006, more than half of them be­cause ar­bi­tra­tors con­cluded that the de­part­ment missed dead­lines to com­plete its in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions. One of­fi­cer, con­victed of as­sault af­ter he was caught on video at­tack­ing a shoe store em­ployee, was fired in 2015 and re­in­stated in 2016 af­ter an ar­bi­tra­tor con­cluded that po­lice had missed the dead­line by seven days, ar­bi­tra­tion records show.

D.C. Po­lice Chief Peter New­sham said he dis­agreed with the ar­bi­tra­tors’ con­clu­sions on when the clock started in those cases. “The pub­lic has to suf­fer be­cause some­body vi­o­lated an ad­min­is­tra­tive rule,” New­sham said, adding that twothirds of the of­fi­cers re­in­stated be­cause of missed in­ves­tiga­tive dead­lines are no longer on the D.C. force.

Po­lice unions ar­gue that the right to ap­peal ter­mi­na­tions through ar­bi­tra­tion pro­tects of­fi­cers from ar­bi­trary punishment or be­ing sec­ond-guessed for their split-sec­ond de­ci­sions. Unions con­tend that po­lice chiefs are prone to over­reach, es­pe­cially when there is pub­lic or po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to fire of­fi­cers. In in­ter­views, lo­cal and na­tional union of­fi­cials said some of the 451 re­in­stated of­fi­cers should never have been fired in the first place.

“They’re held to a higher stan­dard,” said James Pasco, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the na­tional Fra­ter­nal Order of Po­lice. “Their work is con­stantly scru­ti­nized to a far higher de­gree. You very sel­dom see any phone-cam in­dict­ments of trash col­lec­tors or util­ity work­ers.”

Lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments have of­ten been crit­i­cized in re­cent years as not hold­ing their of­fi­cers ac­count­able in fa­tal shoot­ings, or in cases of bru­tal­ity and cor­rup­tion. To ad­dress the outcry from the pub­lic, the De­part­ment of Jus­tice has em­ployed its au­thor­ity to in­ves­ti­gate po­lice de­part­ments for civil rights vi­o­la­tions and to force re­forms. Un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Jus­tice launched dozens of these in­ves­ti­ga­tions. The tac­tic was used, for ex­am­ple, in the af­ter­math of the 2014 fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, how­ever, has in­di­cated that lo­cal of­fi­cials should take the lead in polic­ing their own de­part­ments. “I think there’s con­cern that good po­lice of­fi­cers and good de­part­ments can be sued by the De­part­ment of Jus­tice when you just have in­di­vid­u­als within a de­part­ment who have done wrong,” At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions said dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings this year.

Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials re­cently told The Post that the de­part­ment will be more ju­di­cious in launch­ing civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The 37 de­part­ments that com­plied with The Post’s re­quest for records em­ploy nearly 91,000 of­fi­cers. The nearly 1,900 fir­ings and the 451 re­hir­ings show both how rare it is for de­part­ments to fire of­fi­cers and how dif­fi­cult it is to keep many of those from re­turn­ing.

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