It’s time to rethink Virginia’s police officers’ bill of rights and similar laws elsewhere.
For some 20 months, the Fairfax County police officer who shot and killed John Geer has been on “paid administrative duty,” despite the $2.95 million settlement the county agreed to pay Geer’s family. The commonwealth’s attorney is also seeking to empanel a grand jury to consider criminal charges.
Officer Adam Torres’s tenure with the Fairfax County police continues, thanks to the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, which provides job security protections unavailable to other workers. Similar laws are on the books in Maryland and many other places.
Most employees are subject to the employment-at-will legal doctrine, under which they may be fired for any reason or no reason at all, except for limited discriminatory reasons. Under Virginia’s police officers’ bill of rights, an officer cannot be discharged, even if he or she hurt someone, disobeyed orders or broke the law, without being notified in writing of the basis for the dismissal, given an opportunity to respond orally and in writing, with the assistance of a lawyer, and given the right to file a grievance under state or local procedures. Police officers’ bill of rights laws sprung up in the early 1970s. Before that, police generally were held to a higher standard of conduct than other citizens.
In New York City, for example, police officers were required to cooperate fully with criminal investigations to the point of waiving their constitutional privilege against self-incrimination or lose their jobs. That requirement was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1968 decision in Gardner v. Broderick. Even though the officer in that case won, police organizations pressed the issue, resulting in what might be regarded as a “second helping” of employment rights, reflected in officers’ bill of rights laws today.
It is sometimes said that the extraordinary job security afforded to police officers is justified by the dangerous nature of their work. But that premise is false. Most police officers never fire their weapons in defense.
Law enforcement is not even among the 10 most dangerous jobs in the United States. Loggers and roofers have the most dangerous jobs, and we don’t provide them with special job security.
The FBI reports that the number of officers killed by criminals is at its lowest in 50 years. Unfortunately, the number of citizens killed by police has increased and now stands at its highest point.
Another argument for special job protection rights for police officers is that officers are the targets for unjustified charges of wrongdoing. That police officers may be falsely accused of misconduct is undoubtedly the case, as it was for a University of Virginia fraternity, Duke University lacrosse players and childcare workers, yet none of these groups is accorded special legal protections unavailable to the general public.
We are not talking about punishing someone or shortcircuiting the legal process to which everyone is entitled. We are talking only about how long a community must keep a police officer on the job and pay him, after that community has lost confidence in him and he has lost his ability to serve in the position for which he was hired.
No one has the right to be employed as a police officer. It is a privilege conferred by the community upon those who meet the requirements and who are worthy of the public’s confidence and trust. A finding of criminal liability is far too low a standard by which to decide if someone should remain a police officer. When an officer has lost his community’s confidence and trust, the community should be able to ask that individual to find employment elsewhere.
We need to rethink our police officers’ bill of rights laws.