Fired cops of­ten don’t stay fired

State ar­bi­tra­tion board can over­rule cities

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Cum­mings

A Dan­bury po­lice of­fi­cer was fired af­ter al­legedly beat­ing a pedes­trian on a city street. In East Haven, an of­fi­cer lost her job over a do­mes­tic dis­pute.

But the ter­mi­na­tions turned out to be tem­po­rary.

Both of­fi­cers were re­in­stated last year by the state Board of Me­di­a­tion and Ar­bi­tra­tion, a six-mem­ber panel em­pow­ered to re­solve la­bor dis­putes.

In fact, seven po­lice of­fi­cers fired by Con­necti­cut mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties over the last two years were re­in­stated by the me­di­a­tion board, a Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia re­view of the cases shows.

The board ruled in fa­vor of po­lice unions and of­fi­cers in 12 cases and ruled in fa­vor of a city or town in nine cases.

One case was set­tled, an­other was tabled and a third was sent to state Su­pe­rior Court for fur­ther ar­bi­tra­tion.

Some mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials say the me­di­a­tion process is tilted in fa­vor of unions and costs tax­pay­ers large pay­outs for back wages, lit­i­ga­tion and other ex­penses. They also say there should be a way to over­turn rul­ings at the lo­cal level.

“It’s not an ef­fec­tive sys­tem,” said Dan­bury Mayor Mark Boughton.

“It takes years and costs hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars,” Boughton said of the sys­tem. “It’s a very bro­ken process.”

In ad­di­tion to or­der­ing Dan­bury and East Haven to re­hire of­fi­cers, the me­di­a­tion board re­in­stated five Bridge­port school cops laid off to save the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion money.

In each case, the ar­bi­tra­tors ruled the mu­nic­i­pal­ity vi­o­lated a union con­tract and or­dered the com­mu­ni­ties to re­in­state the of­fi­cers and pay lost wages.

“That sounds about right,” said Av Har­ris, leg­isla­tive li­ai­son and a spokesman for Bridge­port Mayor Joe Ganim, re­fer­ring to the me­di­a­tion board’s record.

Still, Har­ris said de­spite los­ing a case, the city views the process as a nec­es­sary way to re­solve la­bor dis­putes.

“Across the board these cases go one way or the other,” Har­ris said. “It’s truly a neu­tral board; they lis­ten to both sides.”

Bad cops?

Dan­bury of­fi­cer Daniel Sell­ner was fired in Jan­uary 2014 af­ter city of­fi­cials de­ter­mined, based on a store video of the in­ci­dent, that he used un­rea­son­able force while ar­rest­ing a youth on Main Street.

Al­though the of­fi­cer said the youth fell while in hand­cuffs, the city main­tained Sell­ner pushed him to the ground and told the me­di­a­tion board he had a his­tory of ex­ces­sive be­hav­ior.

The po­lice union ar­gued there wasn’t clear ev­i­dence of un­rea­son­able force in the video and com­plained that in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cers never in­ter­viewed Sell­ner about the ar­rest.

The me­di­a­tion board con­cluded Dan­bury did not have “just cause” to ter­mi­nate Sell­ner and the city’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was not “fair or ob­jec­tive.”

The East Haven case in­volved De­tec­tive Monique Cobert, the town’s first African-Amer­i­can of­fi­cer, who was ter­mi­nated in 2017 over a do­mes­tic in­ci­dent that in­volved a fight with her hus­band.

The town main­tained Cobert vi­o­lated depart­ment poli­cies re­gard­ing “good con­duct” and dis­played “dis­hon­est” be­hav­ior.

The me­di­a­tion board found “no just cause” un­der the union con­tract to war­rant the ter­mi­na­tion and or­dered Cobert re­in­stated.

The five Bridge­port spe­cial po­lice of­fi­cers were not ac­cused of mis­con­duct.

Their ter­mi­na­tion was the re­sult of a cost sav­ings move by the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion.

The me­di­a­tion board found the city had signed a memorandum of un­der­stand­ing with the union in which of­fi­cers agreed to ac­cept lower wage in­creases in ex­change for a no lay­off guar­an­tee.

In other cases, a Shelton po­lice of­fi­cer’s sus­pen­sion for run­ning into a con­crete truck was re­versed. An East Hart­ford of­fi­cer ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing depart­ment rules by work­ing a pri­vate event where al­co­hol was served also won re­ver­sal of his dis­ci­pline.

In an­other case, a New Mil­ford of­fi­cer’s de­mo­tion over a med­i­cal train­ing dis­pute was re­versed.

Not happy

The Con­necti­cut Con­fer­ence of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties re­cently re­leased a re­port on un­funded state man­dates that fo­cused in part on bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion for la­bor dis­putes.

“When lo­cal lead­ers are re­quired to make the tough de­ci­sions to pay for these man­dates, the prop­erty tax bur­den is borne by res­i­dents and busi­nesses,” said Joe Delong, CCM’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

CCM pro­posed chang­ing state law so lo­cal gov­ern­ing or leg­isla­tive bod­ies can re­ject ar­bi­trated de­ci­sions by a two-thirds vote.

“This forces lo­cal gov­ern­ments to in­crease prop­erty taxes to cover the costs of these man­dates, re­duce or elim­i­nate lo­cal ser­vices, or can­cel or limit needed in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments,” DeLong said.

CCM’s re­port last year cited nearly 1,300 un­funded man­dates that cost towns and cities money, of which bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion is just one. Al­though the ex­act cost of the those man­dates is not known, ad­vo­cates for re­form be­lieve the num­ber is in the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally.

The me­di­a­tion board is split into two, three-mem­ber pan­els to hear cases. The gover­nor ap­points the mem­bers, with two rep­re­sent­ing la­bor, two rep­re­sent­ing man­age­ment and two rep­re­sent­ing the gen­eral pub­lic.

Towns and cities must abide by me­di­a­tion board de­ci­sions; they can ap­peal to a state Su­pe­rior Court, but that ef­fort is rarely suc­cess­ful.

Den­nis Mur­phy, a pro­fes­sional ar­bi­tra­tor and the me­di­a­tion board’s vice chair­man, said the board is fair and im­par­tial.

“We call them as we see them,” Mur­phy said.

Mur­phy said most of the de­ci­sions are unan­i­mous, which means the la­bor, neu­tral and man­age­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives agreed.

“I’ve been there two years,” Mur­phy said, re­fer­ring to his time on the board. “It goes both ways. It’s 50/50.”

Mur­phy said the idea of a two-thirds over­ride at the lo­cal level would throw cases into the po­lit­i­cal world.

“It’s not an un­funded man­date,” Mur­phy said. “It’s a very eco­nomic process. If you vi­o­lated the con­tract, you vi­o­lated the con­tract.”

Over­ride

Boughton said the sys­tem is not work­ing and pub­lic trust in po­lice and mu­nic­i­pal de­ci­sions is at stake.

“It erodes trust and for peo­ple to have con­fi­dence,” Boughton said.

“They didn’t quar­rel with the be­hav­ior [in the Dan­bury case],” Boughton added, re­fer­ring to the ar­bi­tra­tors.

“They ruled on the pun­ish­ment,” Boughton said. We dis­agree. The ar­bi­tra­tor did not un­der­stand that our code of con­duct is not part of the con­tract.”

Boughton said the abil­ity to over­ride de­ci­sions is needed.

“It would make sense,” Boughton said. “I need to be able to man­age my depart­ment and ac­tions that didn’t meet that stan­dard. But we will fol­low the rul­ing and the of­fi­cer will go back to the academy.”

Boughton added: “This took three years and hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars. But it’s a choice you have to make.”

For­mer state Sen. Len Suzio, a Meri­den Repub­li­can who lost his seat last fall, said there is a sense among mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials that the me­di­a­tion board fa­vors unions.

“When I was on the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, I can’t tell how you how many con­tracts would go to ar­bi­tra­tion and the board fa­vored the union,” Suzio said.

“I re­mem­ber when Al Gore talked about rein­vent­ing gov­ern­ment,” Suzio added. “I think that is where we are right now. The only time you get change is when the sta­tus quo can­not be sus­tained.”

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