â€śPolice officers go into peopleâ€™s homes . . . and they have the authority to take peopleâ€™s freedom. And youâ€™re going to return somebody into that role, somebody who has that responsibility and authority, and whoâ€™s been involved in extreme misconduct? I donâ€™t think anybody is comfortable with that.â€ť
Washington, D.C., Police Chief Peter Newsham is exactly right in that observation about why police departments need to weed out officers who betray the publicâ€™s trust. There should be plenty of discomfort about the revelations of a Post investigation chronicling how police chiefs are often thwarted when it comes to policing their own ranks.
Examination of some of the nationâ€™s largest police departments found that hundreds of officers who had been fired for misconduct - ranging from cheating on overtime to unjustified shootings and including convictions for criminal offenses - were reinstated following appeals required by union contracts. Of 1,881 officers terminated since 2006, more than 450 officers were returned to duty, typically by outside arbitrators who did not dispute the underlying offense but found missteps in the administrative process or concluded that termination was too extreme a punishment.
Among the disturbing cases detailed by The Post: a D.C. police officer convicted of sexually abusing a young woman in his patrol car ordered returned to the force; a Philadelphia officer reinstated despite a video of him striking a woman in the face; a San Antonio police officer regaining his job even though he had been caught on a dashboard camera challenging a handcuffed suspect to fight him for the chance to be released.
No question, there is a need for clear processes to guard against mistakes; some of the responsibility for having to reinstate undesirable officers falls on police agencies that make careless errors during disciplinary proceedings. But The Postâ€™s findings suggest a tilt in the system that makes it difficult to hold officers accountable for bad acts. That the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police actually had the nerve to complain about the higher standards that police are held to (â€śYou very seldom see any phone-cam indictments of trash collectors or utility workersâ€ť) exemplifies one obstacle to the drive for accountability.
It is, as the Post investigation pointed out, rare for departments to fire officers. Most officers, as Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger recently wrote to this page, are â€ścourageous and professional. . . . They risk their lives every day to keep the public safe.â€ť That they are forced to work alongside police who have been deemed unfit for duty does them and the public they protect grave disservice.