To the Editor:
“Accountability” for rank-and-file police officers on the street is important – but so is accountability for their leaders. Public safety – and public trust – must always be the guiding principles of department procedures.
Recently, the Connecticut State Police has been embroiled in controversy. A police officer has been accused of theft, having been caught on video stealing from a business. As a penalty, however, this officer was recommended for nothing more than a 10-day suspension and a transfer. He remains on probation.
This slap on the wrist is a betrayal of the public trust by State Police Commissioner James Rovella. The lax penalty will set a new, low standard for similarly situated employees.
Although the police union may sometimes be at fault in similar situations, here, the failure of responsibility lies squarely with management. The officer in question is still on probation (work test period) and thus he’s an at-will employee. His grievance is not subject to arbitration, where he’d receive the full panoply of union protections.
Even so, the lenient penalty he’s been dealt could nonetheless shape binding precedent for all officers going forward. The police contract specifically articulates “consistency” as one of the key elements of establishing the “just cause” standard for discipline.
“(b) Apply discipline with a view toward uniformity and consistency of punishment;”
In the future, the union will have a fiduciary responsibility to argue that a standard penalty for theft and lack of integrity is a transfer and a ten-day suspension. This precedent will also be weighed by arbitrators should a trooper be terminated for theft in the future.
State police officers often work alone with little oversight. At the scene of an accident, troopers are frequently tasked with safeguarding valuables and collecting evidence. Troopers also enter homes on people’s worst days, when they are forced by circumstances to call for help. There should never be any question – in any citizen’s mind – about whether his or her possessions are safe in the custody of law enforcement.
No one wants to see other officers properly disciplined more than their fellow officers. Discipline after proper due process raises the morale of the vast number of honest officers, who are willing to risk widowing their spouses and making their children orphans to secure public safety. They do not deserve to respond to emergencies under a cloud of suspicion.
When discipline is lax, management isn’t incentivizing positive behavior. It’s creating problems that will continue for the next 20 years and increasing potential liability for taxpayers.
What’s more, it’s hindering state prosecutors. According to U. S. Supreme Court landmark ruling Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose all exculpatory evidence to the defense. This may well include information about the credibility and work record of officers involved in a case. When an officer’s honesty is in question, how can s/he take the stand?
It is reasonable to expect our public safety personnel to perform with the highest integrity. We expect them to be polite, trained, professional and, yes, to operate with courtesy and common sense even as they place the lives of others ahead of their own.
They are entitled to leadership that helps them meet this high standard. If police leaders won’t put a stop to theft in its own ranks, how can they public to trust that their officers will put a stop to crime? Our many great police officers deserve so much better.
Fellow for Labor and Special Initiatives