“At a time when true leadership is needed most, it is unfortunate that we find ourselves having to challenge our elected District leaders for violating the constitutional rights of our first responders,” said Greggory Pemberton, the chairman of the police union.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) defended the new law, saying current practices that include numerous appeal processes make it too cumbersome to discipline and fire officers, and they are “an impediment to best policing practices.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she has not yet reviewed the suit but that city attorneys will “pursue a defense of the District.” The D.C. Attorney General’s Office, which typically defends the District in civil lawsuits, declined to comment.
Changes in the police disciplinary process were part of emergency legislation unanimously passed by the D.C. Council in early July and later signed by Bowser. The legislation revamped some use-of-force policies, added civilians to review boards and increased public accountability in shootings involving officers.
It was enacted without public debate to quickly address outrage following the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis and weeks of demonstrations in the District and across the country. The provisions last for 90 days; the Council is scheduled to debate a permanent bill this fall.
The union says in the suit that the law upends more than four decades of practice in the District in which the labor group had a voice through collective bargaining in discipline and the mechanisms for appeals. The current police contract expires Sept. 30.
The suit accuses the Council of enacting legislation as a “reactionary concession to anti-police rhetoric and protests.” It says the changes violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution and the due process rights of officers. It also notes that giving unions a say in discipline was initially done to ensure “employees are protected against coercion for partisan political purposes.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has complained for years that it is too hard to fire officers for misconduct, and that he has been forced to rehire terminated officers who appealed through arbitration. But he also has said he would keep some appeals provisions as he restructures the disciplinary process under the new law.
Mendelson, reacting to the lawsuit, defended the changes as necessary to hold officers accountable, and he dismissed the central argument behind the legal challenge.
“I don’t think government relations with unions are uniquely covered by the Constitution,” the Council chairman said.
Mendelson made no apologies for singling out police, saying their unique job of enforcing laws and their ability to take away citizens’ liberties means they need to be held to stricter accountability standards than other District workers.
He said he supports unions “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain processes that shouldn’t be reserved exclusively to management.”
Mendelson said the law was enacted quickly because the public demanded change, and he noted there will be an opportunity for public input this fall when the permanent version of the bill comes before the Council.
But, Mendelson said, “We will not change the disciplinary issue.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.