With so much focus on police officer conduct both in Minnesota and across the nation, commentary editor D.J. Tice argues that cops need earlier evaluation for their performance in calmer, more routine situations in order to weed out those who might otherwise make bigger mistakes later — in high-stress, critical incidents (“Find the unfit cops before tragedy occurs,” Jan. 3).
Problem is, according to Tice, police unions and arbitrators too often step in and prevent departments from handing out discipline for missteps large and small.
As a former patrol officer and police chief for the city of Corcoran and now the executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, representing approximately 5,500 officers, county deputies, jailers and dispatchers across the state, I know firsthand that when cops make mistakes they do face repercussions up to and including being terminated.
The fact that there have been recent high-profile police incidents in which officers seemingly have escaped consequences for their actions does not mean that the disciplinary system for cops is broken.
For starters, police officers already undergo careful evaluation early in their careers. All Minnesota police officers must meet license requirements established by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which include a psychological screening and both initial and ongoing training. Officers are also subject to a probationary period (typically 12 months), during which an agency or department can observe and “weed out” unqualified officers without having to show cause or go through a grievance process.
For nonprobationary officers, unions advocate for their dues-paying members in situations where they may face unwarranted disciplinary actions or, more specifically, discipline without just cause. The “just cause” standard is widely accepted and negotiated into all of our labor contracts. Eliminating the just cause standard to make it easier for police to be disciplined — which is what Tice seems to be suggesting — would undermine the basic tenets of collective bargaining.
Tice also cites a couple of examples to support his view that officers are often not held accountable and that the arbitration system is skewed in their favor. In fact, arbitrators are highly qualified, neutral fact-finders who can, and frequently do, uphold discipline. The union may not always agree with the arbitrators’ decisions, but the system is fair and has a high degree of integrity.
Likewise, agencies and the general public may not always agree with these decisions either. However, this “routine second-guessing of disciplinary decisions,” as Tice calls it, ensures that any actions taken against an officer are reasonable and proportional to the infraction.
I believe men and women who complete the required education, training, licensure and probationary periods to become peace officers in Minnesota should be held to a higher standard. Citizens have a right to expect that cops will not only enforce the laws they’ve been sworn to uphold but also obey them like everybody else. Cops who break rules or laws should face appropriate consequences. But to suggest that unions are helping officers skirt discipline and play by a different set of rules is both reckless and inaccurate.
Sean Gormley is executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, Minnesota’s largest law enforcement labor union.