Sunday, January 30, 2011

Officers, Firefighters Would Be Paid During Investigations

Proposed legislation would order cities to decide if they will employ or simply pay those cleared by arbitrators, civil service commissions

When the news broke that officials suspended a group of Waco policemen for allegedly “double dipping” on the city payroll in a complicated scheme involving compensatory paid time off for working overtime hours, most people had no idea what to think.

The hush hush nature of the case precluded any knowledge leaking out for public perusal.

Following a Grand Jury investigation in which three of the officers were cleared of wrongdoing, they appealed their suspension without pay to a hearing officer for arbitration.

The arbitrator made a finding similar to the Grand Jury's, which no-billed the policemen.

He ordered the City of Waco to put the three officers back to work, something the city has refused to do for many months while it arranges an appeal of the arbitrator's decision.

But the public has no idea of their having been cleared because they are still under suspension without pay, living in disgrace, their reputations uncleared and their careers interrupted by criminal allegations a Grand Jury decoded were unfounded.

In the case of former Chief of Police Larry Kelley, who was convicted of DWI, an arbitrator made a similar order. Put the chief back to work at full salary right away.

Instead, he and his family suffer the consequences while the appeals process drags out, seemingly with punitive motive on the part of city officials.

The city administration has appealed that decision now for a decade. In fact, most appeals such as the cases of the three officers cleared by the Grand Jury in the double dipping case take many years to settle.

Typically, arbitration is binding, meaning that the parties must agree going in that they will abide by the decision of the hearing officer.

In these cases and many others pending across the state, however, according to a spokesman for CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas), the process works to cause “...the unfairness of officers having to persevere though an arbitration process and having justice declared in their favor and then having the city appeal to simply starve them out.”

Said Charley Wilkison, “The facts were so strong that an arbitrator ordered him back to work. That means the city lost. They can't accept the verdict, so why should the officer's family suffer?”

In future cases, families of officers cleared by arbitration or civil service investigations will not miss a paycheck if a new law sponsored by a retired Houston Police Officer passes the legislature during this session. the new law would require that they be paid. The cities could make an independent decision whether to put them back to work, or not.

Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, prefiled HB 342, a bill identical to one city attorneys fought to a defeat in the 2009 session of the Texas Legislature. Cities would be required to pay the salary and benefits of the officer while appealing decisions with which they disagree following an arbitrator's order or a civil service commission's ruling to put an officer or a firefighter back to work.
Texas Municipal Police Association, and CLEAT have both backed the proposed legislation.

“The officer should have the same rights as the criminals they chase and apprehend,” Mr. Wilkison said.

But the Texas Police Chiefs Association disagrees.

If a police department executive has reason to believe an officer should not be on the force, he should have the discretion in his power to block a reinstatement ordered by arbitrators or civil service commissions, said James McLaughlin, executive director of the Chiefs' association.

Waco City Attorney Leah Hayes also disagrees. She says the proposed legislation is unconstitutional. She is actively pursuing appeals of the three officers suspended pending the Grand Jury investigation and the case of former Chief of Police Larry Kelley.

Such appeals preserve the “integrity” of the police department, as well as provide a constitutional check to arbitrators' rulings and the findings of civil service commissions, she said.

1 comment:

  1. Texas Civil Service Law for Fire Fighters and Police Offciers sets out the rules that a city or chief of police must follow to discipline an officer for misconduct. The procedure allows the chief to take action upon completion of an investigation that shows that the officer violated the rules. The officer may then challenge that decesion by appealing the chiefs action to an arbitrator. The arbitrator conducts a hearing much like a trial. Witnesses are sworn, evidence is presented and the hearing examiner determines if the evidence supports the action taken by the city. The city or officer may only appeal an arbitrator's decesion if there was collusion involved on the part of either party (ie: the arbitrator was bribed, etc). Or if the arbitrator exceeded his jurisdiction (ie: didn't follow the civil service law). What has happened in Waco is the city didn't like the outcome, so they are simply filing a baseless appeal in an effort to keep the officer from earning an income. This punishes the officer's family and is catogorically unfair. This bill simply provides that if the city is going to appeal an arbitrator's decesion, they have to return the officer to the payroll pending the outcome of the appeal. They can return him to work outright, place him in and administative position, or suspend him with pay. It is a fair resolution to Waco's abuse of the appeals process.

    Chris Jones
    Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas