Department Draws Criticism Over City's Forced Rehiring of 17 Officers

D.C. Council members Jim Graham, left, and Phil Mendelson were among those who were not pleased with the rehiring of the officers.
D.C. Council members Jim Graham, left, and Phil Mendelson were among those who were not pleased with the rehiring of the officers. (Lucian Perkins - Twp)
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By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

D.C. Council members and the police union criticized the police department yesterday for repeatedly missing deadlines in disciplinary proceedings after the city was forced to rehire 17 officers who had been fired for misconduct.

"This is embarrassing for the city," said Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "The thought of having people back on the force like this gives me chills."

The officers, brought back since October, were dismissed for a range of offenses, including lying on official documents, accessing private information about a Washington City Paper reporter, double-dipping, and getting into off-duty scrapes and other trouble. They won back their jobs after judges and arbitrators determined that the city did not act quickly enough against them.

"If we did things the right way in the first place we wouldn't be in this pickle," Graham said.

For decades, the department has struggled to meet disciplinary deadlines, even promising the public and D.C. Council years ago that it would make improvements. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who took office in December 2006, said she inherited the problem and is trying to do better.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he plans to get updates and explanations on the matter from Lanier at oversight hearings throughout the year.

"Discipline should happen in a timely way," Mendelson said. "When it's delayed, we as the public don't benefit, and the officers don't benefit."

D.C. personnel rules set time frames for cases in which officers are investigated and sanctioned internally. Officers under investigation, who must be notified in writing of any charges, can request a hearing before a police trial board.

After a hearing is requested, or a written notice is sent, the department has 55 days to issue a final decision on any sanctions.

Police officials said the department had been misinterpreting the 55-day deadline, but they declined to identify the reason, citing confidentiality of personnel records.

Mendelson said the police department agreed to the timeline and should be able to meet it.

"The huge issue is the department not following its own rules," said Kristopher Baumann, head of the D.C. police lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"The department did something wrong, but nobody in the department is being held responsible," Baumann said. "If they cannot follow relatively simple employment laws, what does that say about their ability to handle complex issues like search-and-seizure and civil rights violations?"

Lanier said she rehired the officers after she was ordered to do so, almost always with full back pay, benefits and seniority. She added that she is relying on department officials to ensure that the problems do not recur.

"It is up to the various people I put in those jobs to get it right," Lanier said. "Let's hope this is the administration that finally fixes this problem."

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

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