Arbitrator orders fired D.C. officer reinstated

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An arbitrator has overturned for the fifth time the refiring of a reinstated Metropolitan Police Department officer, lending support to persistent accusations by rank-and-file officers that Chief Cathy L. Lanier has systematically abused their due process rights and undermined MPD’s disciplinary system.

The ruling is among the many “inefficiency cases” - so-named for the rationale used by MPD to refire 18 of the 27 officers who had been reinstated - that have been overturned by arbitrators, with back pay, raising further questions about the chief’s judgment in handling personnel matters.

It also underscores what police union officials and their representatives have argued for years: Chief Lanier, in response to negative media attention, implemented a flawed legal opinion by the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in refiring the 18 officers, who had been fired and then reinstated on appeal.

Four inefficiency cases remain to be decided. Nine other officers kept their jobs in spite of Chief Lanier’s attempts to refire them.

According to the July 8 arbitrator’s ruling, the MPD charged former officer Edwin Santiago in 2004 with moonlighting without approval and lying to investigators. After a police trial board sustained the charges, Mr. Santiago was fired in September 2004, the ruling states.

The MPD reinstated him with back pay and benefits in 2007 when the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board found the department had violated his right to a timely hearing, according to the ruling, and he continued to work without incident.

“That should have been the end of the matter,” arbitrator Andrew M. Strongin wrote of Mr. Santiago’s reinstatement.

But in May 2008, after “local news outlets” disclosed MPD’s willingness to reinstate police officers who had violated the law, Chief Lanier moved to refire Mr. Santiago and 17 others “for reasons that appear to be a response to negative publicity,” Mr. Strongin wrote.

First, she solicited an “evaluation” from the attorney general's office that cause existed to terminate the officers for inefficiency, according to the ruling.

On May 23, 2008, Attorney General Peter J. Nickles told Chief Lanier in a letter that reinstatement of the officers, including Mr. Santiago, posed a “profound public safety issue.” He wrote that when an officer has engaged in misconduct that calls the officer’s credibility into question, “that officer has irreparably impaired his or her ability to serve the criminal justice system.”

‘Credibility can’t be trusted’

Armed with the Nickles letter, Chief Lanier issued a news release that same day claiming that several of the officers were reinstated “due to administrative error.”

“We can’t have officers testifying in court when their credibility can’t be trusted,” she said.

She then asked the OAG to review the 27 reinstatements to determine “whether or not these individuals could be reasonably retained as MPD officers,” according to an Aug. 1, 2008, letter that Mr. Nickles sent to Chief Lanier. Of the 27, Mr. Nickles said his office would not rely on or call as witnesses 18 of them.

“We also believe that the conduct is serious enough - and the supporting documentation is compelling enough - to support any decision that MPD would make about these officers, including termination,” he wrote.

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