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Audit: D.C. police fired for misconduct often got jobs back, with back pay

(Peter Hermann/The Washington Post)

Thirty-seven fired D.C. police officers were reinstated between 2015 and 2021 and collectively received millions in back pay, according to a report released Thursday by the city auditor, who raised concerns about how law enforcement officers are disciplined in the nation’s capital.

The officers were terminated for allegations ranging from the use of derogatory language to assault and child abuse. They were reinstated an average of 8 years later, with the city awarding 36 of them a total of $14.3 million in back pay.

The report found it was relatively common in D.C. for a police officer to resume working on the force despite previous criminal or civil charges. In the 5 1/2 years studied by the auditor, an average of nine officers were terminated and six officers were reinstated each year.

After returning to the force, nine of the 37 officers were either the subject of a complaint or had some kind of new misconduct on their record, the auditor found. Six of the nine were still working at the D.C. police department during the audit; the others had retired or resigned.

“We have individuals on our police force whom a person in the street might not want carrying a gun on their behalf,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said. “We are trying to hire and retain and train the very best police force we can, and we are not quite there yet.”

Wilberto Flores, a D.C. police officer, was fired in 2011 after he was found guilty in criminal court for exposing his genitals to women in a parking lot — though a trial board recommended suspension instead, the auditor found. He was reinstated five years later, when the Office of Employee Appeals ruled that the police department did not have the authority to increase the penalty that the panel chose. The city paid him more than $362,000 in back pay, according to the auditor’s report.

Since then, Flores has had three instances of misconduct, including crashing a D.C. police vehicle, the auditor found. Efforts to reach Flores for comment were not successful Thursday.

Crystal Dunkins was reinstated on similar grounds, after she was arrested in 2006 for assault, child abuse and other related charges, the auditor found. She pleaded guilty to one charge in a deal with prosecutors, the auditor’s report says, though it does not specify the charge. Dunkins, who, according to the auditor, was paid more than $723,000 in compensation before retiring in 2019, could not be immediately reached Thursday.

The audit found that 32 of the officers were reinstated through arbitration — a process that allows third-party reviewers to decide whether termination was excessive punishment. The city council passed emergency legislation in 2020 that made it easier for the police chief to fire officers by removing the police union’s right to collective bargaining in discipline procedures. The police department has not used arbitration since.

In the audit, Patterson called for the city council to permanently outlaw arbitration. Both D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and the D.C. police echoed that sentiment on Thursday, vowing to work toward implementing her recommendations.

“MPD is concerned about the reinstatement of any member terminated for misconduct and the impact on public safety and trust,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “Recent legislation has addressed some of our long-standing concerns about ambiguous laws related to discipline and an arbitration system that has contributed to the return of unsuitable police officers.”

Mendelson said in a statement: “The most common reason for reinstatement was an arbitrator substituting his/her opinion for the Chief. And that’s a problem.”

In 2016, an arbitrator reinstated Jay Hong, an officer who was terminated in 2009 after he crashed his car into another vehicle and pleaded guilty to driving drunk.

Hong, who was given more than $290,000 in back pay, was still working as a D.C. police officer at the time of the audit. Efforts to reach Hong on Thursday were not successful.

The city’s police union, which sued and lost over the 2020 city council provision expanding the chief’s power to discipline officers, blamed the police department for “mountains of wrongdoing, incompetence, and outright failure” and slammed the auditor for her views on arbitration.

In 39 percent of cases, the audit found that a police officer was reinstated primarily because of the D.C. police department’s failure to meet deadlines. Nine officers were rehired largely because of the police department’s failure to provide sufficient evidence in the initial case, the audit said.

“The DC Auditor seems to be jumping on the ‘Anti-Police’ bandwagon and engaging in an effort to eliminate transparency and accountability for decisions made by the Chief of Police,” the union said in a statement. “This completely biased report with its overly broad conclusions is just another political swipe at police officers and their rights.”