It’s time to re­think Vir­ginia’s po­lice of­fi­cers’ bill of rights and sim­i­lar laws else­where.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - The writer is a lawyer and civic ac­tivist in North­ern Vir­ginia.

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.


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