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Amid nationwide protests over death of George Floyd, calls for an end to police union protection for fired cops

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As protests across the nation flared into widespread civil unrest over the weekend, publications from both the left and right side of the political spectrum called for an end to police union protection of officers who have lengthy disciplinary histories.

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer now charged in the death of George Floyd, had 17 prior complaints lodged against him.

Disciplinary action against an officer, including firing, can be grieved by the police union and sent to arbitration in which a panel of arbitrators can either uphold the discipline, modify or overturn it.

The process, often lengthy and expensive for municipalities, can result in officers terminated for bad behavior getting their jobs back and affords them a level of protection not seen in the private sector.

A 2018 study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago Law School compared unionized sheriff’s deputies in Florida to other Florida police departments that did not utilize collective bargaining and found “strong evidence of for a ‘shadow effect’ from collective bargaining rights.”

“Our estimates imply that collective bargaining rights led to about a 40% increase in violent incidents among sheriffs’ offices,” the researchers wrote. “The effect is concentrated among sheriffs’ offices that unionized.”

Our estimates imply that collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct among sheriffs’ offices, relative to police departments. The effect of collective bargaining rights is concentrated among sheriffs’ offices that subsequently adopted collective bargaining agreements, and the adoption of these agreements is associated with increases in violent misconduct.

Collective Bargaining Rights and Police Misconduct: Evidence from Florida

When it comes to arbitration, the union contract and past precedent is the rule of law and in Connecticut, where public-sector unions dominate political life, and those contracts afford a level of protection that often appears to defy common sense.

  • Danbury police officer Daniel Sellner was fired in 2014 after he injured a man in handcuffs by throwing him to the ground, resulting in a settlement against the city. Sellner had a history of similar incidents. However, the state’s arbitration panel overturned the termination. The city took the case to court, lost and had to reinstate the officer. This was the second officer the city had to reinstate due to arbitration.
  • Hartford police detective Robert Lanza was fired after being arrested for drunk driving and using racial slurs. An arbitrator overturned the firing and the city has now taken the matter to court in an attempt to vacate the arbitration decision and the case appears to be on-going.
  • A Bridgeport officer was fired in 2009 for covering up a hit and run accident involving fellow officer Peter Billings who was also her boyfriend. The arbitrator reinstated officer Christine Burns, saying that her punishment was more severe than Billings’.
  • Officer Daniel Judkins of the Shelton Police Department was fired in 2017 after making “offensive” Facebook posts regarding President Barack Obama “which (among other things) were in violation of Shelton Police Department rules and policy and undermined Judkins’ effectiveness as a police officer,” according to court records. Like Hartford and Danbury, an arbitrator overturned the city’s decision and Shelton is now trying to vacate the decision in court. In 2015, Judkins was arrested for misdemeanor assault stemming from a fight with his brother-in-law and was placed on paid leave. The charges in that case were eventually dropped. 
  • In 2014, East Hartford Police Officer Juma Jones was fired – twice – after he was arrested for breach of peace and criminal trespass. It was found he used the department’s mobile data system to look up information on his former girlfriend, which led to the breach of peace and trespass charges. The department found Jones had improperly used the data system 18 times. The arbitration panel reinstated Jones and East Hartford tried to vacate that decision in court. The court sided with the arbitration panel in 2016.
  • In 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate a Stratford police officer who had lied to the town’s independent physician about his history of alcoholism and epilepsy.
  • Two Middlebury police officers are accused of creating false documents to coerce contractors into hiring them for jobs to increase their pay. Officers Randy Ireland and Alton are also accused of not patrolling their areas for more than half their shift. Ireland and Alton have grieved their terminations and the matter is currently before the State Board of Labor Relations.

All of this makes termination of an officer – or any public employee, for that matter – very time consuming and expensive for municipalities who need lawyers to argue during the grievance process, the arbitration process and, if necessary, the court process.

Bridgeport Police Officer Steven Figueroa was arrested six times for various assaults and breach of peace before finally being fired by the department in 2019.

Hartford police officer Joven Gonzalez was assigned desk duty rather than suspension after he was involved in an on-duty domestic incident with his teenage ex-girlfriend. A month later he was under arrest for assaulting a man and woman at a motel room with a firearm.

Although some municipalities take arbitrated decisions to court at a significant cost, courts in Connecticut are notoriously hesitant to vacate arbitrated decisions.

Arbitration rules are written into collective bargaining contracts and agreed to by both parties, therefore unless disciplinary procedures outlined in the contract and “Just Cause” regulations are not followed to the letter, the court will most-likely uphold the arbitrator’s decision.

Often, the employee will be awarded back pay for the time he or she was not employed, upping the cost of attempting to battle a grievance or arbitration decision.

Melvin Medina of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut tweeted on Sunday a chart showing Connecticut’s police unions have spent $1.1 million on lobbying efforts at the Capitol, including pushing back against police accountability bills, Medina wrote on Twitter.

“The thousands of people marching will be needed to fight against the political power police unions wield,” Medina wrote. “If you aren’t willing to see your police department as part of an intentional political machine fighting against accountability then we are bound to lose this fight.”

But the arbitration process is extended to all unionized employees in the public-sector, with similar results.

In 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld an arbitration decision that reinstated a UConn Health maintenance employee who was fired for smoking marijuana while on the job. The justices said that reversing arbitrated decisions should only be for extraordinary circumstances, according the Hartford Courant.

A Department of Transportation employee who was terminated because he threatened a supervisor was reinstated in 2009 after the union argued his discipline was more substantial than discipline administered to others. The union argued that another employee had only received a 20-day suspension for “pulling a knife on a subordinate,” according to the grievance decision.

Connecticut’s Whiting Forensic Hospital was forced to rehire employees in 2009 and 2010 for abuse of psychiatric patients. 

The arbitrators based their decision, in part, on testimony from fellow staff members who were later fired for the abuse of patient William Shehadi, in what became a large and public scandal for the state-run hospital and will likely result in a large settlement payout.

A recent angry and profanity-laced rant by a Connecticut State Police officer against a motorist was caught on video and made headlines, resulting in the officer being placed on desk duty.

In late May, a New Britain officer was arrested for second degree forgery and has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

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