Police discipline is being scrutinized in cities around the U.S. as oversight officials question the rate at which officers fired for misconduct are returned to the force, the Wall Street Journal reports. Last week, an oversight panel in Philadelphia called for a review of the police disciplinary process after finding that 19 of 26 officers fired over a five-year period had their discharges overturned in arbitration. The week before, the mayor of Seattle made changes after a string of police-misconduct findings were overturned. A federal judge overseeing mandated police reforms in Oakland, Ca., ordered a probe into the same issue. The scrutiny comes as a grand jury is set to decide whether to file criminal charges against a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
Officers are rarely charged criminally for using excessive force or other on-duty misconduct. More frequently, they are punished by their employers for such offenses. A high rate of reversals of disciplinary actions can undermine efforts at accountability, say police-oversight officials. “If cases are overturned and they're taking back officers who committed sometimes egregious misconduct, the community rightfully has questions about what those officers are going to be doing in that agency,” said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Police unions win reversals or modifications in more than 60 percent of disciplinary cases that go to arbitration, says Will Aitchison, a lawyer who represents police unions and the director of Labor Relations Information System.