With certain high-profile exceptions, it can feel like police officers who exceed their authority rarely experience the consequences. Police who kill or maim are rarely prosecuted, and qualified immunity shields all but the most egregious offenders from civil liability.
A new report alleges that in Washington, D.C., even cops who do face consequences can often just get their judgments reversed.
Earlier this month, the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) released a report detailing the results of its investigation into the city's Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). It found that between October 2015 and March 2021, at least 37 MPD officers were reinstated after being terminated, at a total cost to the district of $14.3 million in back pay. (All officers except one received back pay.)
Of those cases, 17 of the officers were terminated for conduct classified as a "threat to safety," which the ODCA classifies as "risk of harm to persons through action or inaction,
such as physical and sexual violence, mishandling firearms, or compromising evidence related to an arrest." The other 20 were terminated for "administrative" reasons such as "misrepresentation of injuries, time theft, fraud, and other misconduct not categorized as a risk of harm to persons."
The report charges that the MPD's "discipline process is complicated and confusing," consisting of provisions in D.C. law, multiple regulations and directives, previous court decisions, and "the current collective bargaining agreement" between the MPD and
the city's police union. Multiple agencies investigate misconduct allegations against officers. If termination is proposed, a panel made up of MPD captains and commanders convenes. If the panel recommends termination, the officer can appeal the decision to the chief of police; if the chief denies the appeal, the officer is fired. Then, according to the collective bargaining agreement, an officer can appeal the termination through third-party arbitration.
The most common reason cited for reinstatement, in nearly half of cases, was that termination was deemed a disproportionate punishment. In four threat to safety cases, "the arbitrator determined there was sufficient evidence the misconduct had occurred, but the arbitrator felt termination was an excessive penalty."
Based on the time period in question, the report estimated that on average, nine MPD officers are terminated and six are reinstated each year. Notably, it's not clear whether any of these are the same officers, as the average appeals process takes eight years.
"At the conclusion of the appeals process," the report states, "if officers are successful in the appeal, they receive backpay dating back to the date they were terminated." The average amount of back pay per reinstated officer was $374,000, and each year the arbitration and appeals processes cost the district nearly $900,000.
In one case, Officer Crystal Dunkins was arrested for child abuse and assault, admitting to "beat[ing]" a child with a belt. Dunkins accepted a plea and was sentenced to five years of probation. The MPD fired Dunkins for conduct unbecoming of an officer, even though the panel had only recommended a 30-day suspension. Saying the MPD could not overrule the panel, an arbitrator later reinstated Dunkins and awarded her over $723,000 in back pay. She retired in 2019.
In another case, Officer Wilberto Flores was arrested and charged with exposing himself to women in public. He was convicted and given a 30-day suspended sentence and three years of probation. The panel recommended a 60-day suspension, but the MPD terminated Flores for conviction of a crime; he was reinstated in December 2016 and awarded over $360,000 in back pay. He is currently still employed with the MPD and has since been cited for misconduct three additional times.
Of the 15 who were reinstated and are still employed by the MPD, three had been fired for threat to safety violations and six have been "the subject of reports of misconduct since reinstatement." This is unfortunately common among police departments, in which officers accused of misconduct are often saved by their police unions.
To be fair, the ODCA report finds blame with the MPD as well. In 14 cases (39 percent of the total), terminations were overturned because the MPD failed to meet deadlines mandated by D.C. law. In another nine cases, eight of which involved threat to safety violations, terminations were overturned because the MPD failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove its claims.
In a letter to the auditor included with the report, Chief of Police Robert J. Contee III noted "pending legislation" that would remove arbitration from the discipline appeal process. He agreed completely or partially with each of the ODCA's recommendations and noted that "reinstatement of members who engaged in egregious misconduct that warranted termination has been a source of great frustration for me and my predecessors" and "a problem that has plagued the District of Columbia for decades."