After misconduct, cops back on force
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.