HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Disciplinary actions
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Following a finding by a police department's internal affairs unit (or by precinct/division investigators) or a citizen review agency that an officer violated departmental policy, the officer should be subjected to disciplinary action. Usually authorized at the level of deputy chief or commissioner, disciplinary actions may include verbal reprimands, reprimand letters, suspensions, or dismissals. In addition, and in some cases instead of "punishments," officers may receive retraining or counseling. In most cases, they are assisted throughout the disciplinary process by police union representatives who utilize civil service laws and special "law enforcement officers' bills of rights" (statutes delineating specific "rights" provided for officers who are investigated for misconduct) to shield officers from punishment.135

When, in a small percentage of cases, complaints alleging excessive force are sustained (following citizen or internal review procedures), there is no guarantee that the offending officer will be punished appropriately. Ranking officers, who should themselves be judged by how they handle sustained complaints of misconduct by their subordinates, may choose to apply lenient sanctions or none at all. If they dochoose to discipline an officer, arbitrary statutes of limitations in some cities prevent them from taking any action when investigations have been delayed. Furthermore, when higher-ranking police officials order disciplinary measures, subordinates often bring administrative appeals and win them. Even in cases where heads of police departments have ordered the dismissal of officers known to be brutal, the officers have won reinstatement, with back pay, through arbitration or court appeals.

In Los Angeles, the Christopher Commission found that, "even when excessive force complaints are sustained, the punishment is more lenient than it should be."136 As Assistant Chief David Dotson testified, "[H]igher command officers when learning of [incidents of excessive force] having occurred took no action or very indecisive action, a very weak and slow approach to doing something....And so, that's an area that I believe we have failed miserably in, is holding people accountable for the actions of their people."137 The commission concluded that "a major overhaul" of the disciplinary system was required.138

According to a series of investigative articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, firing even the most violent officers on the city's force is nearly impossible. In studying cases between 1992 and 1995, the journalists found that punishment imposed by the department was lessened or reversed two-thirds of the time, or in fifty-two of seventy-eight cases that went to arbitration; in twenty of the fifty-two, the arbitrator completely reversed the department's punishment.139 Police Commissioner Neal called it "frustrating to no end.... [T]hese people who are being fired are people who should not be part of the department."140 Yet attorneys defending the officers claim that they succeed in arbitration hearings because the city gives low priority to defending punishment decisions against officers, virtually ensuring that the officers will prevail.

In Portland, an Internal Affairs Division staff person told Human Rights Watch that most supervisors do not want to deal with officers with complaint histories, andfiring them is made difficult by civil service protections.141 He asserted that these officers are instead ignored, transferred to another precinct, or sometimes promoted. The unwillingness to deal with officers with a history of misconduct complaints was also evident in New York. The Mollen Commission found that certain police precincts were used as "dumping grounds" for incompetent or undisciplined officers.142 Officers assigned to dangerous, high-crime precincts, it found, took a "perverse pride" in their reputation for being thuggish and believed that supervisors and internal affairs investigators would not venture into their "territory." The commission recommended transferring officers with disciplinary problems equally among all precincts to avoid this concentration and reinforcement of corrupt or brutal behavior.

In the most severe cases, police departments should utilize decertification procedures for officers found to have committed serious abuses. Thirty-nine states have police officer decertification procedures, by which police officers who engage in serious misconduct are "decertified" and prevented from serving on any police force in the state. Professional boards conduct the decertification reviews, much as similar boards operate in other professions. Hearings are held by a state agency usually known as the Peace Officer's Standards and Training (POST) Commission. In states with decertification procedures, a police officer whose conduct has been found to be in violation of state statutes or regulations will have his or her police officer certificate (or license) removed; this prevents him or her from continuing to serve as a law enforcement officer in the state. It also helps to curtail the practice of some "problem" officers who outrun disciplinary efforts by resigning their positions in one jurisdiction to take up work in a neighboring jurisdiction in the same state.143 Of the states we examined, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Rhode Island are among eleven states without decertification powers, largely due to opposition from police unions. Louisiana has limited powers to revoke certification. Of the states examined, Georgia has used its POST most actively inrecent years, with hundreds of law enforcement officers receiving some manner of "discipline" from the POST.144

In the eleven states in which the POST Commission or its equivalent does not have decertification powers, they should be so empowered. All states should revise their statutes or regulations to require that police chiefs or commissioners report the dismissal or resignation of officers accused of serious misconduct. Federal legislation should be introduced that would link the data currently collected by state POSTs so that "problem" or abusive officers are not allowed to obtain law enforcement employment in a neighboring state. Where decertification procedures currently exist, they should be reinvigorated and fully funded.

135 The bills of rights may limit the ability of a police chief or commissioner to suspend an officer, and require that suspended officers continue to receive their salaries and benefits. In some states, there is no requirement of dismissal or loss of benefits even for an officer convicted of a felony. Many of the "bills of rights" also allow for the purging of officers' personnel files of all but sustained complaints; even the rare sustained complaints may be purged after a set number of years in some states. While officers are entitled to full due process safeguards, many of the protections they currently enjoy are exceptional and, in practice, undermine police management efforts at accountability.

136 Christopher Commission report, p. xx.

137 Ibid., p. 33.

138 Ibid., p. xx. (See Los Angeles chapter.)

139 Jeff Gammage and Mark Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995.

140 Ibid.

141 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Ron Webber, Portland, September 21, 1995.

142 Mollen Commission report, pp. 123-5.

143 See forthcoming article, Steven Puro, Roger Goldman, and William C. Smith, "Police Decertification: Changing Patterns Among the States, 1985-1995, " in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management.

144 "A Sourcebook of Information by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, 1996," p. 69, as provided to Human Rights Watch by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on June 15, 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch