Making the punishment stick

The recent death of George Floyd has highlighted the issue of police discipline and how “bad apple” public employees must be held accountable for their bad acts. What’s less well known is that even when they are disciplined, there is a good chance their punishments will be overturned. This isn’t limited to police officers—it spans across all professions.

New legislation introduced by State Rep. Patrick Garofalo (R-Farmington) during the Legislature’s special session in June would eliminate the state law that mandates binding arbitration for terminated public employees and would replace it with a process that puts an administrative law judge in charge of adjudicating appeals.

“This reform would be a step in the right direction as policymakers determine ways to increase transparency and accountability for public employees who serve our communities,” Rep. Garofalo said in a press release. “The current arbitration process…is why some bad apples have not been fired.”

The majority of public employees and professionals who serve our communities do so with honor and dignity. But there are those who are problem-prone who unfortunately discredit their professions. Terminating these employees is difficult under the current arbitration process embedded in state law, and too often a public employee fired for serious misconduct is later reinstated. When a bad cop, teacher, or state worker gets his or her job back, we all lose.

The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed data from the past 15 years that showed half of Minnesota law enforcement officers who were fired for misconduct but appealed their terminations were reinstated. Seven out of nine officers terminated for violating use-of-force policies were reinstated, including two from the Minneapolis police department. And half of Minneapolis police officers who faced criminal charges are still working for the department today.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau recently told Kare 11 news that she has seen this problem firsthand numerous times throughout her career.

“When I terminated Blayne Lehner [for using excessive force pushing a woman to the ground in 2016] he was reinstated with 40 hours of time off without pay and he came back to the department,” Harteau said.

An arbitrator disagreed with the city of Minneapolis firing him and ordered the city to rehire him. But he never went back to work, remaining on paid administrative leave until he got fired again in 2019 for a separate use-of-force case that happened six years earlier.

Garofalo says arbitrators often feel pressure to please both sides involved in the process and maintain an unbiased track record, which can allow bias to influence decisions over facts. A judge, on the other hand, would be free to make an independent ruling.

Both Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey have recently called on the Legislature to change the arbitration process for police officers, according to the Journal. “If the legislature is serious about deep, structural police reforms, this is the most impactful change they could make,” Frey said in a recent statement.

Will Mayor Frey’s DFL-allies heed his advice?