Watchdog: Reinstating fired D.C. officers questioned

(WJLA) - The numbers are staggering. Over the past two years, D.C. Police have had to re-hire 29 officers after they were fired for crimes or serious misconduct.

They were reinstated on what you could call a technicality, and are now back out on the streets with a badge and gun.

At a City Council Public Safety hearing in January, Police Chief Cathy Lanier laid out some examples: An officer caught dealing drugs – ecstasy – was reinstated by an arbitrator.

"Who decided that a drug dealer should have a gun and a badge and the authority of a Metropolitan Police Officer?" Lanier questioned.

Another officer was twice involved in domestic violence, putting a gun to his head and threatening suicide. After he was committed for a psychiatric evaluation, the arbitrator still ordered him to be reinstated with back pay.

Then there was another officer who had lied about a collision when a cruiser struck a passenger and caused a skull fracture – he was also reinstated.

"It makes me feel unsafe," says D.C. resident Leo Siebert.

The cost to taxpayers? More than $2 million, along with the public’s trust.

According to Lanier, the problem is twofold. First, the so-called 90-day rule is a D.C. law that applies only to police officers and firefighters. Essentially, the department has 90 days to investigate the officer’s alleged misconduct, call witness, acquire subpoenas and warrants, etc. However, if they miss that deadline by even one day, that officer is able to get his or her job back.

The other problem says Lanier, is that arbitrators are getting the last word. So now, the Police Chief is asking the Council to overhaul the law:

"Limit the power of arbitrators to put bad cops back on the payroll. If we miss an administrative deadline, sanction us, fine us, punish us -- but don't put a dirty police officer back on the street as a penalty. Who's getting punished? The community."

The union representing D.C.’s police officers says nobody wants bad cops back out on the streets – but that the rules are there for a reason: due process. The 90-day law came about in 2004 after investigations had sometimes dragged on for years, keeping officers in unnecessary limbo.

"This is completely her failure -- it's not the law, the contract, it's not the arbitrators. It's a failure of the leadership of the MPD to follow its own rules and follow DC law," says police union president Delroy Burton.

And the union also says that the arbitrators bring an independent voice to make sure the process is fair. Fairness is what Public Safety Committee Chair Tommy Wells says he is concerned about too; he wants to make sure this is not an attempted power grab by the Chief.

"Like Chairman Wells says, she wants to be Queen with no one being able to question what she says or does and review the actions taken against individuals," says Burton of Lanier.

Taxpayers we spoke with says there has got to be some way to fix this – and soon.

Public Safety Chair Tommy Wells says he will take a look at the system. As for whether this is indeed an attempted “power grab,” Lanier insists she does not want to be the “Queen,” saying there are several steps taken before the misconduct reaches her desk – along with an appeal process.