Hit & Run

Off-Duty Cops Ought to Pay On-Duty Consequences

New York police officer to be arraigned for an alleged assault at a bar.

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Raymond Crespo

A New York police officer is expected to turn himself in today, to be arraigned on charges related to his alleged assault of a man whose friend might have spilled a part of his drink on the cop's shoe.

The cop, O'Keefe Thompson, was already on some kind of desk duty due to an unspecified illness or injury that precludes him from active work but apparently doesn't preclude him from going to a Coney Island bar and giving a man a concussion.

The case—hardly the first time an NYPD cop has been accused of off-duty wrongdoing—illustrates the importance of an effective police disciplinary process. A criminal indictment ought to be sufficient grounds for a police department to decide to terminate an officer. Cops should certainly enjoy the due process rights they often deny others. But there is a difference between the due process required before the government can deprive a free person of his life or liberty, and the due process requires before the government can deprive a person in its employ of his employment.

Such a high burden of proof, unfortunately, is often required to terminate bad cops. This is dangerous, not only because it keeps bad cops on the street but because it increases the pressure on prosecutors to pursue charges even when they may not have the evidence needed to secure a conviction.

Something is wrong when the only two options for dealing with an abusive cop are a slap on the wrist or a criminal conviction.

Cops should certainly not be protected from prosecution, as they often appear to be now. There is also something unsavory about the bench trials cops often request instead of facing a jury. Judges rarely punish or convict police officers, as seen in the recent case in St. Louis where a now-former officer was accused of planting a gun on a man he shot and killed, and was caught on tape saying he would kill the man moments before. The judge nonetheless let him off. No cop has been convicted in a bench trial since 2005.

A few months ago in New York, a judge cleared two officers who were caught on tape beating up a postal worker after finding out he had inadvertently given directions to a maniac who had killed a cop. The officers claimed they stopped the postal worker because he was parked in front of a hydrant, writing him tickets for that and other alleged traffic infractions.

Nor should it matter that Thompson was off-duty when he allegedly assaulted that man in a bar. How officers behave off-duty is a reflection not only of how they behave on-duty, but of the standards they expect to be held to. Being part of the criminal justice apparatus should not mean deferential treatment when someone ends up on the other side of the system. In many jobs, criminal charges are sufficient for a termination. For employees of the criminal justice system, perhaps it ought to be required.