Do police officers get fired for misconduct? The answer is complex, but we’ll explore

Police accountability for misconduct remains a controversial topic. Some claim strict processes make firing officers challenging, while others cite numerous high-profile terminations for wrongdoing.

This article explores the realities of police dismissals: Common firing offenses, perceived difficulties in terminating officers, ongoing reform efforts for increased accountability, and challenges faced by police chiefs. Real-world cases will be examined, along with the public’s trust issues when fired officers regain employment.

Why Is It So Difficult to Fire Police Officers?

Police Unions and Arbitration Processes

One of the biggest hurdles in firing police officers is the power of police unions and the grievance arbitration processes outlined in many union contracts. These procedures often allow fired officers to appeal their termination before a third-party arbitrator.

According to a 2020 study by Professor Stephen Rushin at Loyola University Chicago, arbitrators overturn disciplinary decisions against police officers an astonishing 52% of the time. In a staggering 46% of cases, they order police agencies to rehire officers who were previously fired.

Police unions argue that arbitration protects officers from unjust terminations. However, critics contend that arbitrators frequently substitute their own judgment on appropriate discipline, even in cases of serious misconduct like excessive force or dishonesty.

Civil Service Protections and Qualified Immunity

In addition to union contracts, police officers in many jurisdictions are covered by civil service laws that make it challenging to fire them without following rigid procedures and meeting specific evidentiary standards.

Moreover, the legal doctrine of qualified immunity provides police officers with considerable protection from civil lawsuits, further insulating them from accountability for misconduct.

While proponents argue these safeguards prevent arbitrary terminations, detractors believe they create a double standard that shields officers from real consequences.

Cases Highlighting Challenges in Firing Officers

Numerous cases across the United States illustrate just how difficult it can be to permanently remove problematic officers:

  • In Seattle, an arbitrator ordered the rehiring of an officer fired for punching a handcuffed woman, alarming a federal judge monitoring police reforms.
  • A Washington state officer caught driving under the influence and lying about it was fired, only to be reinstated by an arbitrator citing unequal discipline for a drunk civilian employee.
  • In New York City, an officer who pulled a gun on a couple in a parking dispute kept his job after departmental charges, merely losing 30 vacation days.

These high-profile cases suggest a larger issue with holding police accountable for misconduct.

What Kind of Misconduct Can Get a Police Officer Fired?

Despite the perceived obstacles, police officers can and do lose their jobs over various types of serious misconduct. Some of the offenses that commonly lead to termination include:

Use of Excessive Force

Any unjustified or disproportionate use of force that violates department policies can result in an officer’s firing. This includes instances of excessive physical violence, improper use of weapons like Tasers or firearms, and failure to de-escalate confrontations appropriately.

Dishonesty and False Reporting

Police work relies heavily on officers’ credibility and truthful reporting. As such, any attempts to file false reports, lie during investigations, or otherwise act dishonestly are considered grave offenses that can prompt termination.

Criminal Offenses Like DUI, Assault, Theft

Certain criminal acts, whether on or off duty, are seen as irreparably damaging to an officer’s ability to enforce the law. Driving under the influence, assault, theft, and other serious crimes frequently lead to an officer being fired, though some departments take a more lenient stance on alcohol-related incidents.

Though some offenses seem fireable, the process to terminate officers can be difficult, involving many steps and chances for reinstatement through grievances and appeals.

High-Profile Cases of Police Officers Being Fired (and Rehired)

To better understand the complexities involved, let’s examine a few high-profile cases where fired police officers were able to regain their jobs:

The Firing and Reinstatement of Officer Adley Shepherd

In 2014, Seattle Police Officer Adley Shepherd was terminated for punching a handcuffed woman in the face, leaving her with a broken eye socket. However, an arbitrator controversially overruled the firing, ordering Shepherd’s reinstatement.

This decision so alarmed U.S. District Judge James Robart, overseeing police reform efforts in Seattle, that he extended federal oversight over the department due to concerns about lack of accountability.

A U.S. Appeals Court ultimately allowed Shepherd’s termination in 2019. However, the case showed how arbitrators can weaken actual disciplinary consequences.

Officer Tye Sheats’ Admissions and Rehiring

When applying for a job in 2016, East Wenatchee Police Officer Tye Sheats admitted to multiple past instances of petty theft, fraud, and filing a false insurance claim during a polygraph screening.

After an internal probe, Sheats was fired in 2019 for alleged dishonesty. However, an arbitrator reversed the termination, citing the East Wenatchee Police Department’s failure to prove misconduct “beyond a reasonable doubt”—an unusually high legal standard for administrative disciplinary matters.

Other Examples From Around the Country

Numerous other cases around the nation illustrate how fired officers frequently get their jobs back through arbitration or administrative appeals, such as:

  • A Spokane officer caught having sex while on duty
  • A Washougal officer convicted of assault for punching a civilian
  • A New York City officer who crashed into Tiffany’s while allegedly drunk

In each instance, the initial termination decision was overturned, allowing the officers to return to duty.

While these cases represent the most high-profile examples, they point to a broader pattern of fired officers utilizing grievance processes to successfully regain their jobs, even after being terminated for serious infractions.

The Difficulties Police Chiefs Face in Terminating Officers

For police chiefs and administrators seeking to uphold discipline and increase accountability, terminating problematic officers is an uphill battle plagued by numerous obstacles and pitfalls.

Burden of Proof Requirements

One of the biggest hurdles is the stringent burden of proof required in many police disciplinary proceedings. Arbitrators frequently demand that misconduct be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” or via “clear and convincing evidence”—standards typically reserved for criminal trials.

These heightened burdens make it exponentially harder for police agencies to justify terminations, especially in cases hinging on judgment calls or violations of department policies rather than outright criminal acts.

Past Lenient Discipline as Precedent

Compounding the difficulty is the tendency for arbitrators to rely on past cases of lenient discipline as precedent for reducing current punishments—even when those previous disciplinary decisions were too permissive.

This circularity means police agencies can struggle to increase real accountability if they failed to impose appropriate discipline in prior cases, essentially being shackled by their own past leniency.

Overruled by Arbitrators

Beyond evidentiary hurdles, police chiefs must also grapple with the reality that arbitrators can completely substitute their own judgment on appropriate discipline, overruling termination decisions based on relatively minor procedural issues or differences of opinion.

Many express frustration that after conducting thorough investigations and following protocols, their substantive disciplinary decisions are still frequently second-guessed and reversed by third-party arbitrators prioritizing job protections.

The intersecting challenges make it difficult to achieve meaningful accountability through terminations, even in cases where the misconduct is egregious.

Reform Efforts to Make It Easier to Fire Police for Misconduct

In response to high-profile instances of officers regaining their jobs after being fired for violations, reform efforts have emerged at state and local levels aimed at increasing accountability.

Proposed Changes to Arbitration Processes

Some of the most substantive reform proposals focus on overhauling the arbitration processes that have enabled fired officers to systematically get rehired:

  • Changing the standards of proof to a “preponderance of evidence” rather than more stringent criminal standards
  • Prohibiting arbitrators from reducing discipline based on precedents of past leniency
  • Establishing clearer guidelines and limited grounds for overturning termination decisions
  • Allowing police chiefs’ disciplinary rulings to be given greater deference and finality

These changes could enable police chiefs to more easily terminate officers, while still maintaining due process rights.

New Laws on Decertification of Officers

Another emerging avenue for increasing accountability is state laws enabling the decertification or de-licensing of police officers who commit serious misconduct, regardless of their employment status.

By stripping officers’ state certification to serve as police, such laws remove their ability to simply move to another department after being fired. This addresses a longstanding issue where fired officers could easily get rehired elsewhere, with their past disciplinary history remaining opaque.

Laws establishing statewide processes for revoking police certifications over fireable offenses like excessive force, dishonesty, or criminal convictions have gained traction in several states recently. Supporters argue these policies provide a vital additional deterrent beyond employment termination alone.

For example, Washington state passed a law in 2021 creating such a decertification process overseen by a new state commission. Under the law, police officers fired for specific offenses like using excessive force or committing crimes can have their certification revoked through this independent process.

Decertification laws don’t directly impact the ability of individual departments to fire officers, but they make terminations more consequential by preventing decertified ex-officers from getting rehired elsewhere. When coupled with arbitration reforms, these policies aim to improve accountability.

Increasing Accountability and Oversight

Beyond the acute issues of termination, firing, and decertification processes, some jurisdictions are pursuing broader reforms to reduce misconduct and increase accountability through improved oversight:

  • Strengthening civilian oversight boards with disciplinary powers
  • Mandating stricter use-of-force policies and training standards
  • Enhancing transparency around misconduct investigations and discipline records
  • Adopting “duty to intervene” requirements for officers witnessing misconduct

While firing problematic officers remains paramount, these complementary reforms strive to create a more comprehensive culture of responsibility and deterrence against abuses.

By tackling the issue of accountability from multiple angles—termination procedures, decertification consequences, proactive policies, and public transparency—such reform efforts aim to rebuild community trust fractured by perceived impunity for police misconduct.

The Impact of Police Firings (or Lack Thereof) on Public Trust

Ultimately, the ability (or inability) to consistently fire and hold accountable police officers involved in serious misconduct has deep ramifications for public confidence in law enforcement institutions.

Eroding Community Confidence

In marginalized communities that have experienced disproportionate police violence and civil rights violations, the pattern of fired officers getting rehired through bureaucratic processes compounds long-standing grievances.

When members of the public see officers pulling out of terminations even after shocking cases of brutality or wrongdoing, it reinforces the perception of a system rigged to protect its own at all costs. This dynamic breeds profound alienation from those who are supposed to serve and protect all citizens equally.

Double Standard Perceptions

More broadly, the inability to fire and permanently remove officers guilty of flagrant misconduct feeds into public narratives of a “double standard” in accountability between law enforcement and ordinary citizens.

Citizens face severe consequences for crimes like assault or dishonesty. However, the perception is police often avoid real punishment for similar or worse offenses due to systemic protections and barriers to termination.

The Need for Real Accountability

Restoring community trust ultimately requires a good faith showing that police departments will consistently hold their own to account and remove officers who fatally compromise the integrity of the badge through egregious abuses.

Failure to do so perpetuates a corrosive lack of accountability that both compromises effective policing and supercharges wider societal divides surrounding law enforcement’s role. High-profile failures to permanently terminate officers after outrageous misconduct can thus represent self-inflicted wounds in the battle to regain public legitimacy.

Police officers need protections, but the difficulty in terminating and revoking certification of officers who clearly breach public trust is an accountability crisis that reform efforts must urgently fix.

In Summary

Police officers do get fired for serious misconduct like excessive force, dishonesty, and criminal behavior. However, the process of firing officers is difficult due to police unions, grievance processes, past leniency, and high evidence requirements. Many fired officers get their jobs back, shaking public trust.

Reform efforts aim to increase real accountability through changes to arbitration, decertification laws, and oversight. This could help restore faith that officers face consequences for violating their duty. For policing to work well, the public must believe law enforcers strictly follow the law themselves. Achieving decisive accountability when violations occur is an ongoing journey to rebuild legitimacy and trust.

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