By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has rehired 17 officers who were fired for misconduct, saying she was forced to bring most of them back because the department missed critical deadlines for taking action.
The officers were dismissed for problems such as lying about when they were on the clock, falsifying documents and looking the other way when another off-duty officer got into fistfights, according to D.C. court and arbitration records. One officer accessed personal information about a City Paper reporter and posted it on the Internet with a suggestion that other police "target the individual for law enforcement," the records show.
The department has struggled for decades to meet disciplinary deadlines and promised the public and D.C. Council years ago that improvements would be made. But in the most recent cases, police officials once again violated timetables in internal affairs cases. As a result, the firings were overruled by judges in D.C. Superior Court or by arbitrators ruling for the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board.
Lanier, who took over the department in December 2006, said that the slip-ups predated her administration and that she had no choice but to bring the officers back -- almost always with full back pay, benefits and seniority. It was unclear yesterday how much the city has spent. Lanier placed most of the officers on patrol.
"If a judge said they were wrongfully terminated and you have to take them back, then I do," Lanier said yesterday. "For any cases where there was an ethics issue -- unless I have no other choice -- I wouldn't return them. It's too important an issue to me."
The returning officers, who have been rehired since October, have generated tensions in the department, with some colleagues asking why they had been rehired.
The District's personnel rules set critical time frames for cases investigated by the police internal affairs unit. Officers under investigation can request a hearing before a police trial board. They must be notified in writing of the charges against them. Once a hearing is requested, or a written notice is sent, the department has 55 days to issue a final decision on sanctions.
Officials promised to be more careful about meeting deadlines after a Washington Post article revealed that more than 200 officers who were fired or suspended from 1991 to 1993 had their penalties overturned by courts or labor arbitrators because of lapses.
Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, who is in charge of internal affairs, said the department had been misinterpreting the 55-day deadline. In the 1990s, the department mistakenly interpreted the time rule as a guideline, not a requirement, causing judges and arbitrators to torpedo case after case. Newsham declined to identify the problem this time, citing the confidentiality of personnel records.
"Now that we understand the court's interpretation of the rule, we don't anticipate it happening in the future," Newsham said.
In one recent case, arbitrator Michael A. Murphy sided with an officer who had been fired for taking disability leave while working at another job. Murphy ruled that the officer, Toledo Kelley, should get her job back and chastised the department for violating the 55-day rule yet again.
The city should know better, Murphy declared, citing "a cumulative series of awards, over an extended period of time, addressing the very same issue between the very same parties, and reaching a unanimous conclusion." He added that there has been an "unbroken string of precedent, spanning a period of more than twenty years."
Officer Nicole Lindsey is among those back on duty. In 2004, records show, her supervisor turned down Lindsey's request for an afternoon off. So she falsely told him that she had donated blood that morning; under the rules, that got her four hours off. Lindsey told another supervisor that she couldn't accept an assignment because she had given blood that day, records show. The department recommended that she be fired but did not notify her within 55 days. Her firing was overturned last year.
In another case, a speed camera caught Officer Andre Powell driving over the limit in 2003. He reported to traffic court, testified that he was on official police business and submitted a form to the hearing examiner saying his statement was true. He was then interviewed by internal affairs officers and admitted that he lied and falsified the form, records show.
The department missed the 55-day deadline by nearly two months in Powell's case. His dismissal was overturned last year, and he was returned to the force in April.
Another officer, Tara Resper, returned to work in April because the department had taken too long -- 68 days -- to notify her of a decision. Resper was fired because, while off duty in 2003, she saw an off-duty officer get into three fistfights with another woman. She did not take police action or notify supervisors, officials said.
Officer Ariel Mannes was investigated in 2003 for retaliating against City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis, according to an arbitration filing. In police trial board proceedings, he admitted using his position as an officer to access Cherkis's personal records and posting the information on a law enforcement Web site. The board decided unanimously to fire Mannes that year, but the department took more than 55 days to notify him.
Lanier rehired him in November but then suspended him. The department is trying to dismiss him again because he was convicted of a weapons offense in the District during the time he was fired, records show.
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.