Appeals court upholds DC law facilitating police discipline

A panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld a provision in a city law that makes it easier for the police chief to discipline officers, a move lawmakers passed more than two years ago amid social unrest over police practices.

The provision deprives the city police union of power in the disciplinary process, removing what city leaders see as obstacles to quickly ridding the force of officers implicated in serious misconduct.

The labor group sued the district in federal court, arguing that the provision unfairly transformed police into a “separate class” lacking the same collective bargaining rights as other city employees. A federal judge dismissed the case and on Friday a three-judge federal appeals court panel unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision, saying the union’s “constitutional claims were without merit.”

DC Council President Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who helped craft the provision, said he was “sensitive that this is a labor issue,” but he did not apologize for giving the chief more leeway to discipline and fire police officers.

“Police have the ability to take lives under the guise of the law, and they must be held to a higher standard,” Mendelson said Tuesday. “What we’ve seen across the country is that it’s become harder and harder to get a bad cop off the street.” He added that in law enforcement agencies across the country, “accountability has been difficult to achieve through the disciplinary process.”

DC police union sues district over changes to officer disciplinary process

Police union president Greggory Pemberton did not respond to a request for comment on the decision. The lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the union also did not respond to an inquiry. The union could request a review by the full court of appeal.

The union argued in its lawsuit that the discipline provision upended four decades of practice in the district, which historically gave the police task force a say in how officers were held accountable and the mechanisms they could use to appeal. The union called the law a “reactionary concession to anti-police rhetoric and protests”.

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement that his organization was working with Pemberton to “seek a way forward on this issue”, although he did not specify what that might be. imply.

Yoes said the court’s decision “is going to have a chilling effect” on police in the district and potentially across the country, if other cities follow suit. He said the law would exacerbate the difficulties faced by police departments in hiring and retaining officers, as they work to allay concerns about violent crime.

“There will be real consequences for public safety in our nation’s capital and elsewhere,” the statement said.

Circuit Judge Gregory G. Katsas, joined by two other judges, wrote the opinion dismissing the constitutional objections raised by the union. The judges said the union ‘could not reasonably expect his agreement [with the District] forever limit the power of the legislator to adjust the scope of collective bargaining.

The dispute between the police union and the district has complicated recent contract negotiations, although last month officers, detectives and sergeants overwhelmingly approved a new labor agreement that includes raises. The contract, which does not contain a clause governing discipline, must be approved by the DC Board before being ratified. The date for this vote has not been set. The new disciplinary provision will take effect with the new contract.

Changes to the police disciplinary process were part of emergency legislation passed unanimously by the Council in July 2020 and later signed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

It was passed without public comment as a quick response to outrage after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which fueled weeks of protests in the district and across the country. The law too made changes to the department’s use-of-force policies, added civilians to commissions that review officer conduct, and demanded that videos from police body cameras be made public of officer shootings.

The Council-appointed Police Reform Commission recommended changes to police disciplinary procedures in its April 1, 2021 report. It concluded that “freeing MPD from bargaining with the union on disciplinary matters will result in a process that respects officers’ due process rights while improving the chances of officers being held accountable for wrongdoing, and through much less secretive proceedings.”

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DC police chiefs will now be able to remove officers’ rights to appeal disciplinary decisions to independent arbitrators, who the current and former police chiefs say have too often overruled their decisions to suspend or terminate. dismiss officers. Chiefs said it forced them to reinstate the fired employees or pay them lucrative severance pay in return for their resignation.

Agents will still be able to appeal disciplinary action through the DC Employee Appeals Office and ultimately through the courts.

Dustin Sternbeck, a DC police spokesman, said Tuesday that the police chief was not yet ready to discuss any changes he might make to the disciplinary process.

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