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During his first oversight hearing of the Metropolitan Police Department Wednesday as head of the D.C. Council public safety committee, Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells briefly questioned Police Chief Cathy Lanier on the city’s failed attempts to fire several officers it had previously fired and then reinstated.

“It just sounds like a debacle,” said Wells of the firings.

Indeed, LL detailed MPD’s mismanaged, unsuccessful attempt to fire more than a dozen cops in a cover story several weeks back. The quick backstory: After the Post broke the news in 2008 that the city had rehired some police officers because MPD missed a deadline for disciplinary decisions, the city tried to fire several of these reinstated officers. To do so, the the department accused the officers of “inefficiency,” which essentially meant they couldn’t perform their duties as a police officer because prosecutors were unlikely to call them as witnesses because of their past discipline issues.

Some internal affairs officers assigned to investigate the inefficency charges expressed concerns that the charges were bogus, but those concerns were ignored. The officers charged with inefficiency went before police trial boards, which came up with a variety of rulings even though they were all considering the same legal questions and essentially the same evidence. Some trial boards cleared the officers, some found the officers guilty and ruled that the officers should be suspended, while most trial boards found the officers guilty and ruled that they should be fired again. (One formerly high ranking police officer says Lanier stacked the trial boards with officers who have fewer job protections in order to get the judgements she wanted on the inefficiency cases.)

For those not cleared by the trial boards, the inefficiency charges went before  arbitrators or administrative judges, who tossed them out on the same legal grounds as the cases that had been tossed out by trial boards. The cost of this failed gambit, according to the police union’s lawyer estimate, is easily more than $2 million in back pay and legal fees.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Lanier reiterated her belief that she’d done the right thing in trying to fire a bunch of bad cops who had been reinstated and said the arbitrators who overturned the second firings were the ones to blame for the mess. “It’s very frustrating for me when an arbitrator, who is not a resident of the city, makes a decision to rehire a police officer who was engaged in extremely egregious conduct and then I have to figure where to put those folks if I don’t feel comfortable putting them on the street,” she said.

But the facts undermine Lanier’s statement in several ways. Ten different arbitrators all came to essentially the same legal conclusions: that MPD was improperly trying punish its officers for wrongdoing that had already resulted in their initial firings and reinstatement. The department and the police union have to agree on which arbitrators to use, which meant the department helped pick the arbitrators Lanier is complaining about. The arbitrators also reached the same legal conclusions as many of Lanier’s own officers did on the trial boards that cleared the officers of inefficiency. It’s important to remember that the pertinent facts of each inefficiency case were virtually identical for each officer, which explains the consistency of the arbitrators’ rulings (and highlights the inconsistency among trial board rulings).

The most problematic part of Lanier’s statement is the fact that she could have appealed any of the arbitrators’ decisions to the Public Employees Relations Board. And if she didn’t like the PERB’s ruling, she could have appealed to D.C. Superior Court. Police union lawyer Jim Pressler says MPD has appealed many arbitrators’ rulings on discipline cases in the past, but didn’t contest a single inefficiency case. That’s a pretty good indicator that it was pretty clear to all involved (including Lanier) that the inefficiency cases were legal losers the department had no business pursuing in the first place.

Lanier says through a spokeswoman: “Being frustrated with an arbitrators’ decision is not a basis for PERB to overturn an arbitrator’s decision,” which does not explain why MPD didn’t appeal legal decisions it didn’t agree with.

In any event, Lanier’s beef with arbitrators is a distraction from what should be the main takeaway from the inefficiency imbroglio: that there’s something potentially very rotten with the state of MPD’s internal discipline system. When you have internal affairs investigators testify under oath that they signed off on investigations they didn’t believe were true, that’s seems like a much bigger problem than any decisions an out-of-District arbitrator might come up with.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery