The city of Seattle was recently forced to rehire a police officer who was charged with felony harassment and then plea bargained down to a misdemeanor harassment conviction after a jury deadlocked over an incident where the officer was accused of barging into the home of his ex-wife, shoving her, and then threatening her boyfriend while off-duty. Responses to the story both in the Seattle Post Intelligencer's message board and in the blogosphere have been pretty contentious with many Domestic Violence activists roundly condemning the decision by the Seattle Public Safety Civil Services Commission that forced the city to rehire the officer after he appealed the firing.
With rates of domestic violence involving police officers being higher than average when compared to the general population and many charges of bias during investigations into domestic violence accusations that involve police officers, this tends to be a very contentious issue. Many are now questioning just how much control the city has over it's embattled police force when the chief can't even make decisions about which officers to fire, let alone discipline.
While it's reasonable to expect that, before being convicted, any person should expect to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise... it's also true that in the private sector employees can be fired for just about any reason and often are once they have been accused of a crime. It's also true that problematic or criminal police officers can pose very serious and unique risks to society that ordinary citizens don't. Therefore, while the city's decision to fire the officer after he was accused but before he was convicted might have been wrong, it should have been able to put the officer on leave or administrative duty until the court outcome had been decided and then make a decision on his employment status.
However, the Seattle Public Safety Civil Service Commission apparently didn't give the city that option, stating instead that even after the conviction of a misdemeanor harassment charge the city shouldn't have been able to fire the officer and must give in to the officer's request to be rehired. Of course, this isn't the first time the commission has forced the city to rehire problematic officers and we've had a difficult time finding any cases where the commission didn't favor police officers who appealed disciplinary actions taken against them when appealed.
So, who are these commissioners, why is it that they favor police officers so heavily, and how is it that they have so much power over the city in regards to it's ability to discipline officers?
According to it's website, The Public Safety Civil Service Commission is made up of four people, one is appointed by the mayor, one by city council, one by the police union, and one by those other three members. As a result of the latest appointments, most have either some background as police officers or strong associations with police groups:
- Herb Johnson was appointed by Mayor Nickels and has served in the Seattle Police Department for 30 years both as an officer and as a temporary police chief.
- Joel Nark was appointed by the Police Guild and is currently a patrol officer in the Seattle Police Department.
- David Brown was appointed by the city council and sits on the board of directors of the Seattle Police Foundation which is a non-profit group formed after 9-11 with the stated goal of supporting the Seattle Police Department and it's officers. (note: the site lists his term as ending on 12/2007, but no new member was mentioned and the site was last updated on 4/2008)
- Mary Effertz appears to be the only member that doesn't have close ties to the police department that would bring up questions of bias. She previously worked for the city of Seattle in it's office of Civil Rights and taught journalism classes.
So, clearly, officers who appeal disciplinary actions by the city can likely expect some pretty preferential treatment by the commission, but how much authority does this commission have over the city in regards to how it manages it's police force?
Well, according the the commission's guide, the commissions decisions are binding and the city must comply unless it appeals to the Washington State Supreme Court. However, there are also other channels through which an officer can appeal disciplinary actions, which might be confusing to the average citizen who has few rights in regards to employment rights when compared to a police officer which would be expected to be held to a higher standard, but apparently isn't.
So, while many are venting their frustrations over this latest incident of the city's apparent unwillingness to discipline officers, in this case the deck is clearly stacked against the city, rendering it nearly unable to manage it's own police force... But, ultimately, it's still the city's fault for stacking the deck against itself by appointing apparently biased individuals to a commission that was meant to ensure that disciplinary actions against public employees were fair and unbiased.