Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets
By Kimbriell Kelly, Wesley Lowery and Steven Rich
Aug 3 2017
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, anofficer 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 2012despite 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.