Since 2006, at least 1,881 officers have been dismissed from 37 of the nation’s largest police departments for behavior that betrayed the public’s trust. Of those, 451 appealed and won their jobs back.
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 return them 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 Post’s findings illustrate the obstacles local police agencies face in holding their own accountable at a critical moment for policing: President 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 comprehensively studied or 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 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 two-thirds 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 hearing this year.
Justice Department officials recently told The Post that the department will be more judicious in launching civil rights investigations.
“The Attorney General has explicitly said that ‘police officers who abuse their sacred trust are made to answer for their misconduct’ and that ‘the Department of Justice will hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force.’ Any assertion to the contrary is flat out wrong and incredibly irresponsible,” said Ian D. Prior, a Department of Justice spokesman, in a written statement.
“What the Attorney General does not believe, however, is that the unconstitutional actions of one police officer should result in onerous and ineffective agreements between the Department of Justice and local police departments that prevent law enforcement from reducing violent crime and protecting the public,’ ” Prior said in the statement.
But in a speech to law enforcement officers recently, President Trump made comments that were widely interpreted as condoning police violence against “thugs” who are taken into custody. He told officers: “[P]lease don’t be too nice.”
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head . ... I said, you can take the hand away, okay?” Trump said.
The White House later said the president had been joking.
The 37 departments that complied with the 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.
“It’s the frustrating part of my job,” said Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, who has been compelled to rehire four officers. “Most of the people we terminate [it] is clearly for good reason.”
In case after case, arbitrators have required police chiefs to take back officers the chiefs no longer want in their ranks.
In the District, police were told to rehire an officer who allegedly forged prosecutors’ signatures on court documents. In Texas, police had to reinstate an officer who was investigated for shooting up the truck driven by his ex-girlfriend’s new man. In Philadelphia, police were compelled to reinstate an officer despite viral video of him striking a woman in the face. In Florida, police were ordered to reinstate an officer fired for fatally shooting an unarmed man.
“He is being paid to protect and serve us as citizens. But he takes my child’s life,” Sheila McNeil, the mother of the man who was killed by the officer in Florida, said at a public meeting in 2015. “I don’t understand how he can still be out here on the street. What fairness is that?”
The 37 departments that reported rehiring officers have one commonality: a police union contract that guarantees an appeal of disciplinary measures.
Police unionization began around the turn of the 20th century and spread rapidly in the 1960s and ’70s as states passed laws allowing collective bargaining by public workers. Today, most public employees, including police officers, have some form of collective-bargaining rights.
On most police forces, officers accused of wrongdoing are subject to internal affairs investigations to determine whether they violated department policies. If the officers are found to have breached department policies, police chiefs, superintendents or police boards can discipline them.
The multiyear contracts negotiated by police unions ensure that discipline may be appealed — typically through arbitration, a process that brings in outside parties, often lawyers who specialize in labor law, to review the punishments and rule on the appeals.
That is how police Sgt. John Blumenthal returned to work in Oklahoma City.
On July 7, 2007, a man was lying handcuffed on the ground when Blumenthal ran up and kicked him in the head, according to several other officers. Blumenthal’s fellow officers reported the incident to internal affairs, and months later Blumenthal was fired and convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery.
Two years later, an arbitrator ordered the department to return Blumenthal to work. The reasons are unclear, because the records of the proceedings are not public. Today, Blumenthal, who did not respond to requests for comment, is a motorcycle officer.
“The message is huge,” said Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, who said he loses about 80 percent of arbitration cases. “Officers know all they have to do is grieve it, arbitrate it and get their jobs back.”
One of the primary determinations an arbitrator makes is whether a department adhered to the rules when disciplining an officer.
“Were all of the correct investigative steps followed?” said Arnold Zack, a former president of the National Academy of Arbitrators who teaches labor law at Harvard University. “And was there a violation of any policy, and if so, what should the discipline be?”
Zack said that police chiefs often bemoan arbitration but that many cases fall apart because the departments fail to properly investigate the allegations. In one Florida case, a sheriff ’s deputy who was fired after being accused by prosecutors of trafficking in pain pills was reinstated because the arbitrator found that the department did not adequately investigate the allegations before firing him.
Many of the arbitrators who handled the cases examined by The Post declined to be interviewed about their decisions, saying that they do not discuss their rulings.
In Chicago, union officials say the appeals process saved the job of an officer who was unfairly fired for failing to pay his parking tickets.
In October 2015, Bill Caro, at the time an officer with 28 years’ service in the Chicago Police Department, was terminated after he failed to pay nine parking tickets totaling $1,471. The department had warned him to pay the unpaid fines and had given him a deadline that he missed.
Caro eventually paid the tickets, but the department fired him anyway, records show.
He appealed, and in August 2016, a local judge who served as arbitrator in the case deemed the punishment “excessive” and ordered that Caro be returned to the force. His firing was reduced to a five-year suspension without pay, meaning he will not report to work until 2020. Caro could not be reached for comment.
For 239 officers in The Post’s study whose firings were made public, the majority had their terminations reduced to suspensions; at least 43 received no discipline at all. Most of the reinstated officers were awarded back pay for the time they were off the force, which can stretch to several years.
“The arbitrator is bound by the contract language just as much as the department,” Zack said. “If the contract says you have five days to investigate, and you take six days, then the firing has to be overturned.
“Does that mean some bad guys will get away with some things? Yes.”