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Lawsuits challenge D.C. police chief’s policies on discipline

Raise questions on due process

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2011

One of Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy L. Lanier's methods of disciplining officers above the rank of captain accused of misconduct — or who have failed to meet her expectations — is to designate them as at-will employees who can be fired or demoted without the due-process rights commonly afforded to police officers.

But her methods have resulted in a potentially costly dispute within the department about employee classifications that appear to have led her to contradict positions taken in federal court by the D.C. attorney general's office.

A number of high-profile lawsuits charge Chief Lanier with imposing at-will status on so-called "excepted service" employees to deny them hearing and notice rights and enforce a code of conduct based on loyalty and fear rather than fairness and sound police disciplinary policies.

Chief Lanier's hand was forced recently by the Fraternal Order of Police, which asked the D.C. inspector general and the Department of Human Resources to investigate how many Metropolitan Police Department officials are in violation of a law requiring excepted service employees to be D.C. residents within 180 days of their appointments. The penalty for failing to do so is termination, according to D.C. law.

Assistant Chief Rodney Parks told The Washington Times in an Aug. 1 email that all excepted-service employees are screened to ensure they meet the requirements of the position, and that recent audits revealed no violations.

Yet on July 11, FOP Chairman Kristopher Baumann submitted a public information request to the police department that asked for, among other items, "Any document containing the names of all Excepted Service employees of the [Metropolitan Police Department] both sworn and civilian."

Mr. Baumann received a letter of response July 26 from Diana Haines, director of human resources, that listed just six police department employees, including spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump and Assistant Chief Alfred Durham, Chief Lanier's right-hand man.

Mr. Baumann contends that Ms. Haines' statement refutes a statement made by the attorney general's office in a 2007 motion to dismiss an amended complaint by Capt. Robin Hoey, who said he was demoted two ranks without cause in violation of his due-process rights. In that motion, filed in U.S. District Court on Oct. 11, 2007, the office stated, "By law, the position of Commander is an Excepted Service Position. As Commander, plaintiff was an 'at-will' employee and does not possess a protected interest in continued employment in that position."

That statement, Mr. Baumann said, is consistent with the position taken by Chief Lanier in numerous other cases in which she has demoted officials at or above the rank of commander to captain, the highest rank that affords mandatory due-process rights. Mr. Baumann estimated that between 30 and 40 officials would qualify as excepted service under that definition.

Mr. Baumann said that if the District enforced its own residency laws, as many as half of those officials could be subject to termination.

The FOP's residency challenge has cast a light on a central contradiction in the way Chief Lanier classifies officials above the rank of captain. Last week, she summarily demoted Commander Hilton Burton, who recently challenged her explanation of the police-escort policy, with the explanation that the department "had lost confidence in his ability to lead."

It was the second time she had summarily demoted him: In 2007, the 20-year Metropolitan Police veteran was demoted from commander to inspector for alleged inappropriate conduct and suspended for five days "with no written notice, grounds for the demotion or an opportunity to respond to the action," according to a lawsuit pending before the D.C. Court of Appeals.

He was later promoted back to commander, but at a lower level and with lower pay, and now is ranked as a captain.

Critics of the police department's personnel policies say the threat of summary demotion is a blunt-force tool intended to intimidate ranking officials to fall in line with Chief Lanier's edicts, including how to rule on the disciplinary matters of others.

The attorney general's office, through a spokesman, said Chief Lanier has the right to promote and demote above the rank of captain at her discretion, and the department's excepted-service employees are in compliance with D.C. residency requirements.

Chief Lanier, through her top spokeswoman, Ms. Crump, has repeatedly denied any problems with the disciplinary system or her policies.

But when asked to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the police department's position in the Hoey case and the short list of names that the department recently disclosed in response to the FOP's public information request, Ms. Crump replied, "The matter is pending litigation. I cannot comment further."

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