Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Five years ago, on a Tuesday morning in March, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier probably wasn’t thrilled to pick up her copy of the Washington Post.

The paper had published an article detailing how MPD had been forced to rehire several officers who’d been fired for various infractions, many involving lying to superiors about things like taking sick leave to working second jobs without prior authorization.

Lanier, who’d been chief for a year at that point, told the Post she’d had “no other choice” but to reinstate the officers because the department had missed a deadline, known as the 55-day rule, to issue a final disciplinary decision after charging an officer with misconduct. The screw-ups happened when Lanier’s predecessor, Charles Ramsey, had been in charge.

Public outcry was swift and loud. “The thought of having people back on the force like this gives me chills,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. The Post editorial board labeled the rehired cops “miscreants” and demanded that then-Mayor Adrian Fenty take swift action to explain what happened. The Fenty administration did them one better: Three days after the original Post story ran, Lanier announced she had decided to try to fire the reinstated officers again at the urging of Fenty’s acting attorney general, Peter Nickles, who also provided the legal justification for it.

At a news conference announcing the decision to dismiss the reinstated officers, Lanier said the city couldn’t afford to have officers who had been once fired for “egregious misconduct” come back to the force “due to administrative error.”

“We’re talking about serious offenses,” Lanier said. “We can’t have officers testifying in court when their credibility can’t be trusted.”

For the 18 officers the department was about to try to fire a second time, the news came as a shock. One officer says he and some of the others had just met with Lanier when they first came back to the force to discuss potential problems with their return.

“The chief told us to go out there and do our job and everything would be OK,” says the officer, who would only speak now on condition of anonymity. Some officers had just signed settlement agreements stipulating that they couldn’t sue the department over having been fired in the first place, nor could the department punish them again for the same offense they’d been fired for. One officer would later testify that when he met with Assistant Chief Alfred Durham to sign the settlement agreement, Durham told him: “Don’t worry, it’s as if it never happened.”

In the end, that proved to be right—Nickles and Lanier’s gambit failed to remove any of the 18 reinstated officers. Five of the officers were reinstated, after months of having their police powers revoked, when police trial boards ruled against firing them. Eleven were fired again, but later ordered reinstated with back pay by arbitrators or administrative judges; the last one returned to work about a month ago. The department dropped its case against one officer and returned him to work. Another officer was fired later on a charge unrelated to what Lanier announced at her news conference.

For what proved to be little more than a public relations stunt that ultimately had no lasting effect on MPD’s roster, the efforts to get rid of those 18 cops sure were costly. Jim Pressler, the general counsel for the police union, who handled many of the reinstated officers’ cases, estimates that the cost of trying to fire them again, including reimbursed back pay, benefits, and legal fees, is more than $2 million.

Still, Lanier says it was worth the fight to try to oust bad apples from her department. The chief blames unreasonable deadlines for when the department must begin investigating an officer once it knows of potential wrongdoing (not to be confused with the 55-day rule; Lanier’s objection is with a regulation known as the 90-day rule). Lanier also blamed the independent arbitrators who overturned the attempts to fire the officers again, saying their “lack of common sense is surpassed only by their unaccountability.”

But the full story is more complex. Interviews with several police officers and officials involved in the firings, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of city and court documents, leave a picture of an arbitrary, biased, and politically motivated police discipline process. It’s a picture of a department hellbent on finding an excuse to get those 18 cops off the force again, even if it meant ordering internal affairs investigators to reach certain conclusions or stacking trial boards with officers more likely to side with the chief. The inescapable conclusion is that in trying to fix a problem she inherited, Lanier wound up making things much worse—with nothing, in the end, to show for it.

After Lanier’s press conference, the department had to build a new case against each of the officers to push them out. For that, the department needed new charges. What MPD brass settled on, in every case, was the charge of “inefficiency.” The officers, MPD argued, had so little credibility because of the wrongdoings that had gotten them fired in the first place that no prosecutor would put them on the witness stand. And since being able to testify at trials is part of a police officer’s responsibility, the 18 officers couldn’t fulfill their duties. It was a novel approach; several veteran internal affairs officers would later testify that they’d never heard of anyone in the department ever being charged with inefficiency before.

Investigators from internal affairs were assigned to determine whether the inefficiency charges had merit. In theory, these investigations are supposed to be independent, objective, and thorough. In practice, they were anything but.

Supervisors in the internal affairs unit not only told investigators what questions to ask and what evidence to consider, but also what conclusions to reach, according to the sworn testimony several internal affairs officers gave during police trial board hearings.

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One sergeant testified that when he was first assigned to investigate an inefficiency case, he found there were “insufficient facts” to support the charge. The investigator said his boss gave the case back and told him to keep looking, this time with specific questions he was supposed to ask the charged officer, as well as instructions on how to write up the investigative report substantiating the charges against him.

Several other investigators testified that they were “ordered” to charge the officers they were investigating with inefficiency, despite whatever misgivings they had about the strength of the case, according to decisions of police trial boards or arbitrators.

One investigator “testified that her ability to investigate this case was hampered by a strict directive from her [supervisors], especially when they were given the charge and specification and all the information that was required to go into this case,” according to a report from a trial board.

Another report from a trial board recorded an investigator saying he “felt that if he came up with any other finding that his investigation would have been [overridden].”

Another investigator “admitted on the record that he made no independent determinations in his investigation,” according to an arbitrator’s report.

Internal affairs investigator Lashon Jones-Warren testified that she did not write critical parts of the report she was assigned to complete as part of her investigation into one of the 18 reinstated officers. She also said she had concerns that the language in her report was “not precisely accurate,” but signed off on it anyway because she felt she was ordered to.

Jones-Warren testified that the supervisors of internal affairs had a meeting with the agents investigating the inefficiency cases in the summer of 2008. She said her supervisors gave instructions on what the charges would be and how the reports would be written. She testified she’d never seen an investigation done this way, and that some agents spoke up in protest at the meeting. She said those protests were ignored.

From the transcript of her testimony:

Q: Everybody marched along and did what they were told to do?

Jones-Warren: The ones I [spoke] with did.

Q: Even though you all thought it was wrong?

Jones-Warren: Even though—I can’t speak for—I thought it was wrong.

Q: So even though you thought it was wrong, you went ahead and did it anyway?

Jones-Warren: You are correct.

Q: Why?

Jones-Warren: Because I felt I was ordered and directed to do that.

Later, Jones-Warren testified: “Would I do it again? No, I would not. But I do believe that I did verbally and vocally speak out.”

Some of the independent arbitrators who reinstated the cops could hardly contain their disgust with the internal affairs investigations. “It was not only a sham as the [police] union charged, it was a travesty,” wrote one arbitrator.

In response to questions about the comments made by internal affairs investigators, Lanier responded through a spokeswoman with a two-sentence statement: “My internal affairs division has an impressive reputation. I would question any member of that division who felt they could not make an independent recommendation.”

Records show the inefficiency investigations were pretty thin on police legwork. The only interviews conducted were with the reinstated officers, and those often lasted only a few minutes and consisted of only a handful of questions. The evidence the department used to justify the charges rested entirely on two letters, one from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a second from Nickles’ office. Both letters essentially said the same thing: Because the officers’ past alleged misdeeds involved some form of lying, prosecutors were unlikely to call them as witnesses, though not prohibited from doing so.

Investigators cited only those letters as evidence of “repeated and well-founded complaints” concerning the officers’ “performance of policy duty or the neglect of duty.” The authors of those letters, who were never interviewed by internal affair investigators, testified that they did not view their letters as complaints, but as responses to information requested from MPD. In one case, a lawyer for MPD argued it didn’t matter what the authors thought what their letters signified, as their characterizations were “insignificant.”

Ultimately, the investigations sustained the inefficiency charges in all 18 cases. The next step for most of the cases was to go before police trial boards. Trial boards are made up of three higher-ranking officers who act as judges in disciplinary cases. The proceedings are similar to a typical court trial, except the trial board judges have more leeway to grill witnesses than criminal judges do.

Before the inefficiency cases worked their way through the system, these trial boards included two police captains and one higher-ranking officer. But Lanier changed the makeup of the boards just before the inefficiency cases were heard, so most of the trial boards involved officers whose ranks were higher than captain. Why is this significant? Because captains in the police department enjoy more job security than higher ranks, who serve at the pleasure of the chief. So almost all of the inefficiency cases went before trial boards made up of officers whom Lanier could easily cut loose or demote.

“They were created to ensure the successful conclusion of these inefficiency cases,” says Pressler, the police union’s general counsel, who has been trying cases before trial boards since 1975.

Capt. Hilton Burton, who is currently suing MPD after he says Laner improperly demoted him twice, served on several inefficiency trial boards before those demotions. In an interview, he says the clear message was that the new boards were to return verdicts that were “more consistent” with what the chief wanted. Burton says he’s served on about 40 trial boards in his career; he’d never seen anything like the inefficiency cases before. To Burton, the testimony of the internal affairs agents was so damaging to the department’s case, and the evidence so weak, that there was no way he could find any of the officers guilty.

Lanier did not respond to questions about why the composition of the trial boards changed. But she did say “any allegation that the panels were somehow ‘stacked’ to ensure a certain outcome” is undermined by the fact that not all the trial boards found the officers guilty of inefficiency.

Of course, even being found not guilty by a trial board didn’t mean an officer charged with inefficiency was safe. In one case, MPD’s director of human resources overruled a trial board’s not guilty verdict—saying the board had “ignored key evidence”—and had the officer terminated. In another case, a trial board found an officer guilty of inefficiency but only gave him a 10-day suspension. The H.R. director overruled that punishment and had the officer fired.

For the officers who were fired, their next option was to put the case in the hands of an arbitrator or an administrative judge. Ten separate arbitrators and administrative judges hearing 11 different cases each reached the same conclusion: that the inefficiency firings should be overturned.

But while Lanier assails these arbitrators for their lack of common sense and unaccountability, she’s silent on the high-ranking members of the department who came to the same conclusions.

So what kind of monsters has MPD un-successfully tried to fire twice? There are some whose original sins are serious, like an officer who a trial board found had lied about being caught with a transvestite prostitute’s head in his lap. A handful of officers were fired after the department concluded they’d behaved improperly or even illegally during messy domestic situations with their wives or girlfriends. Some officers probably did deserve to be fired the first time around, says Kris Baumann, the head of the city’s police union. But Baumann says the department’s chronic inability to meet simple deadlines and follow basic procedures in disciplinary matters cuts both ways: Bad cops skate on technicalities, while good cops never get a chance to clear their names.

“It never goes to the merits,” he says.

A majority of the 18 officers charged with inefficiency were first fired for either unauthorized moonlighting, lying about their duty status, or both. One was found guilty of working as a crossing guard at a private school without advanced authorization from MPD. Another was found guilty of lying about donating blood so she could have four hours off work. It’s not saintly behavior, but there’s a case to be made that MPD likely would have taken some of the officers back the first time around even if the department hadn’t violated the 55-day rule. (That rule, Baumann says, was negotiated by the union as a way of prohibiting the department from keeping officers on restricted duty for years without resolving disciplinary cases.)

An arbitrator’s report on the case of Officer Phillip Thompson, who was fired on an inefficiency charge after being fired and reinstated, is a case in point. In December 2004, Thompson pleaded guilty before a police trial board to working an outside job while on sick leave, a violation of MPD’s rules. Thompson had never gotten in trouble before in his 15-year career. The trial board unanimously ruled that Thompson should be suspended for 20 days. An assistant chief overruled the board and recommended Thompson be fired. Thompson appealed this decision to then-Chief Ramsey. Before Ramsey made up his mind, the department’s own lawyers recommended Thompson not be fired, arguing that the 20-day suspension was in line with the punishment of other officers guilty of similar offense, that “termination has a racially disparate impact” on African-American officers like Thompson, and that the department would likely lose the case in arbitration. Ramsey fired Thompson anyway.

It’s not uncommon for cops, who have chaotic schedules and not-so-great pay to lie about sick leave or outside employment, says Peter Moskos, a Harvard-trained sociologist who spent a year as a beat cop with the Baltimore Police Department. He says he worked an unauthorized job himself as a bouncer when he was on the force, knowing full well that it was “completely” against the rules. But he says he didn’t think what he was doing was “wrong” in any moral sense.

He says when a police department wants to punish one of its officers, the higher-ups actively avoid making a distinction between technicalities and more serious wrongdoing.

“The rules are so all encompassing and strict that they can always get you for something. And if not, they’ll make something up,” says Moskos, who is an associate professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York’s Doctoral Program in Sociology. “It’s the worst of both worlds, because they have all these rules, but then it comes down to whether they want to fuck you or not.”

In Baltimore, he says, officers used the term “in the jackpot” to describe when they were in trouble for reasons unclear. It was a perfect term, Moskos says, because there were no presumptions of guilt associated with it (though it was certainly possible). “You pulled the lever, your numbers come up, and you’re in the shit,” he says. That kind of disciplinary process, he says, leads to a culture where officers spend much of their time keeping their head down and are loath to take any kind of initiative.

“It kills morale,” Moskos says. “If you don’t work, you can’t get in trouble.”

Lt. Tim Haselden, a supervisor in MPD’s 5th District, laughs when I tell him what Moskos says. “We say that all the time: The less you do the less you can get in trouble for,” Haselden says. “The laziest officers—they get in the least amount of trouble.”

Haselden, whose inefficiency case was settled before it went to a trial board, says he thinks the fallout from the cases will be felt for a long time and touches the whole department. For officers who had a dim view of internal affairs’ impartiality already, that view only got worse, he says. For officers who didn’t have an opinion either way before, they’re now suspicious of the department’s ability to police its own in an even-handed manner.

And that’s not just bad news for 4,000 sworn officers in MPD, but for the residents of D.C. who depend on the department to keep them safe.

“How can they expect an officer to concentrate on the job at hand if he’s constantly looking over his own shoulder at his own employer, afraid of being stabbed in the back?” Haselden asks.

Officer Ivan Singleton is a crime scene technician. He collects and marks evidence at murder scenes and other major crime sites. In 2011, MPD named him an “Outstanding Bureau Employee” at its annual awards ceremony. Singleton says he loves coming to work and feels like he has a solemn responsibility to do his job well on behalf of the victims at the crime scenes he works.

“What am I going to tell the families if I mess up?” he asks.

Singleton was one of the 18 cops the department tried to fire on an inefficiency charge. In 2004, a trial board had recommended he be suspended 30 days as punishment for his role in a dispute with an ex-girlfriend. (She claimed he’d tried to use sexually explicit pictures to extort property from her. Singleton says that’s not true.) The trial board’s ruling was overruled, and Singleton was fired. Like all the others, he successfully got his job back. But thanks to Lanier’s determination to rid MPD of the 18 reinstated officers, that only lasted a few hours. “The day I came back is the same day they serve me papers for inefficiency,” Singleton says.

After a year of having his police powers revoked while awaiting a new trial board hearing for inefficiency, Singleton beat the charge—sort of. The board found him guilty, but set his punishment at a three-day suspension. His lawyer says he successfully appealed that punishment.

Singleton says it’s hard to describe what it’s like trying to get your job back after several years, only to lose it again. “To sit in limbo is just like sitting in a room with just a light. You have nothing else going on but the light.”

Singleton was one of a few MPD officers involved in the inefficiency cases I could find willing to speak with me on the record for this story. Several declined comment, either directly or through their lawyers. Some spoke only on the condition I not use their names, because they say they fear they might be retaliated against by the brass. Two officers initially agreed to talk to me, but then backed out, saying their wives asked them not take a risk in speaking out against the department.

“Basically the only reason we got fired again was because it was in the news,” one officer says, explaining why few of the inefficiency officers are willing to talk.

Singleton says he’s tried to tell some of the other cops charged with inefficiency to try and forget about what happened.

“Don’t try to hold on to it. It’s a thing of the past,” he says. “If you hold on to it, you’re not going to be right.”

He says he took his own advice the night of the awards ceremony. He debated not going, so he wouldn’t have to face the police brass, Lanier in particular, who had said he wasn’t fit to be a police officer three years before giving him an award.

“I went, I held my head up,” Singleton says. “I accepted the award, I shook [Lanier’s] hand and went back to work.”