About a year ago, reports came out regarding the termination of five St. Paul police officers following an incident at a local bar. During the incident, the owner of the bar, a former St. Paul police officer, was observed by several officers to have perpetrated several assaults on patrons of the bar on a street corner as well as in an alley behind the bar. Instead of intervening in the assaults, or rendering aid to those who had been assaulted, the officers ignored the injured, and joked with the former officer as he continued to attack others.
Well, right before the quarantines went into effect, an award from the first of the five terminations was issued, and fortunately, the decision to terminate the officer’s employment was upheld. With it, we can see the advances in officer terminations when related to officer responses to calls for service.
In City of St. Paul and St. Paul Police Federation, the thing that sticks out most is the volume of data that was reviewed both prior to and during the arbitration. The hearing itself took four days to complete. In his review of the incidents, Arbitrator Befort states that his analysis of the allegations involved hearing testimony and exhibits as well as the video footage captured by six officers’ body-worn cameras, squad car cameras, and cameras at the scene of the incident. One must realize that when investigating officer conduct at large-scale crime scenes, the amount of media involved has grown by leaps and bounds.
Another thing that jumps out in the award is the apparent effort by officers on-scene to avoid the recording of evidence by body-worn cameras. In the award, the arbitrator notes that while the officers were observing the assaults taking place at the bar, someone in the group called out the phrase “overwatch.” Upon that signal, every officer on-scene turned his entire body away from the action, and one junior officer was redirected to look away after he failed to respond to the directive. As investigators, human resources and labor relations professionals, and citizens, this is an alarming tactic utilized in response to the increased surveillance provided by body-worn cameras.
If one can recall, many police officer groups were adamantly opposed to the use of body-worn cameras for officers, due to their fear that the footage could and would be used against the officers during internal investigation. After several years of use by departments across the country, officers have developed codes for avoiding the recording of suspect or officer conduct without turning off their cameras. While this was not the most complex scheme for avoiding recording, it is important for investigators to be aware of these tactics and question subjects of investigations about their use by officers.
The last thing that jumps off the page at readers of the award is the amount of overwhelming evidence against an officer that it took to secure a termination of his employment. Through its internal affairs investigation, the Department found that not only had the officer failed to render aid to victims, failed to conduct an investigation of the assault, failed to intervene following the commission of a clear assault, and failed to prevent further assaults after seeing the aggressor armed with different weapons, but he also provided material fabrications to investigators on multiple occasions about his conduct. One might think that a police officer’s failure to intervene in assault taking place directly in front of his face would be reason enough to find the officer incompetent to perform the duties of his position. However, it is clear in the award that there was hesitation from the arbitrator in ultimately upholding the officer’s termination.
Police officer terminations are always difficult. No matter how egregious the conduct, police officers are held in high esteem within the community and frequently put their own lives on the line in order to protect the citizens they serve. However, those officers who fail to, or choose not to perform the duties for which they are paid to perform need to be held accountable. A great credit to the City of St. Paul and its representatives in their effort to do so.
As the state continues to open up for more business, employers will have to catch up with all of the grievances put on hold during the quarantine. If you, or your organization, are in need of assistance in the processing or arbitration of grievances, especially in complex police matters, contact the Wiley Law Office, for labor arbitration experience that works.