- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A veteran Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) sergeant gets drawn into a shouting match with a pimp and physically removes him from the police station.

An officer with 21 years on the job deemed “exemplary” by his immediate supervisor is caught moonlighting as a security guard without department approval.

Another officer with no history of discipline gets into a personal domestic dispute that results in criminal charges against him that later are dropped.

These MPD officers have at least two things in common: They all received suspensions on a vote by a three-member police disciplinary panel, known as a trial board, only to be fired by a civilian police official who reports to a uniformed assistant police chief, who answers directly to Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

And, they all stand a good chance of being reinstated by an appeals court or an arbitrator, with back pay, according to attorneys who have represented police officers for years.

The firing and reinstating of police officers is wreaking havoc within the MPD, veteran officers and their representatives say. Beyond the disruption to their career advancement, the officers say, MPD is deprived of their services for months while eventually being forced to rehire them and pay their back salaries.

The resulting rap on Chief Lanier is that she does not adequately respect officers’ rights, and that an uneven brand of justice has undermined officer morale.

Chief Lanier denies that such perceptions exist. Through a spokeswoman, she insisted she has the right to police the police the way she sees fit: “The authority to reject [a trial board’s] recommendation and impose termination has been upheld by arbitrators in decisions dating from 1987 to the present,” Gwendolyn Crump, MPD’s communications director, wrote in an email to The Washington Times.

“The chief will continue to administer the disciplinary process to ensure that those who are not fit to serve as law enforcement officers are removed from the department’s ranks.”

When asked repeatedly to provide a recent arbitrator’s ruling that supports the MPD position, Chief Lanier’s office did not provide one. Yet a 2007 arbitrator’s ruling predating her command states that D.C. Municipal Regulations (DCMR) governing trial board procedures and officers’ appeal rights do “not authorize the Chief to increase the penalty recommended by a trial board.”

Human Resources Management Division Director Diana Haines Walton, a civilian lawyer who, according to the MPD, reports to Assistant Chief Rodney Parks, authors the rulings that have overturned trial board decisions in violation of the DCMR, according to more than a half-dozen appeals reviewed by The Times.

Sometimes, Ms. Walton imposes the ultimate penalty after trial boards have reviewed documentary evidence, witness testimony and cross-examination before handing down punishment aimed at rehabilitating officers, police discipline case documents show.

Other times, she changes a “Not Guilty” finding to “Guilty,” the documents show, or ignores findings of fact or conclusions of law reached by the trial board.

The MPD did not directly respond to questions about whether Ms. Walton’s decisions require the approval of Chief Parks or his boss, Chief Lanier. “The HR Director’s authority to reject an adverse action panel’s recommendation is and has always been in the department’s disciplinary regulation,” wrote Ms. Crump.

But according to sources familiar with the current protocol for police discipline cases, trial board decisions are hand-delivered to Chief Parks‘ office for review before being sent to Ms. Walton in Human Resources. Says one veteran MPD source, “Everything goes to Chief Parks first.”

And under the collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police, “the Chief of Police is the final decision maker for the MPD in adverse action cases.” Veteran lawyers who represent police officers insist there are limits to the firing authority of Chief Lanier and her subordinates.

In 2009, former MPD officer DeVon Goldring of the 6th District was involved in a domestic incident with the mother of his child. Maryland court records show that Mr. Goldring and the woman, Bianca Warren, obtained peace orders and pressed assault charges against each other as a result of the incident, which stemmed from a child custody dispute.

The Maryland state’s attorney declined to prosecute the matter, the records state, and Mr. Goldring was referred for anger management classes. Ms. Warren did not return calls for comment.

After the incident, the MPD’s Internal Affairs Division conducted its own investigation and brought charges against Mr. Goldring for being involved with an incident that would have been a crime had he been convicted, and with conduct unbecoming an officer.

Acknowledging Mr. Goldring’s shared responsibility for the “regrettable” incident, and noting his sincerity “in ensuring that this type of situation never occurs again,” the trial board said that, based on his unblemished record, previous commendations and testimony from his peers and superiors, a 21-day suspension without pay was warranted.

Among the testimony submitted on Mr. Goldring’s behalf was a letter from his acting district commander, Capt. Regis Bryant, who stated that Mr. Goldring was “the best all-around officer” that he had seen since 2007.

In a ruling penned by Ms. Walton, the MPD fired him anyway.

“I disagree with the panel’s recommendation of the 21-day penalty,” she wrote. “[It] does not take into account the egregious nature of your conduct.”

Since he was fired in November, Mr. Goldring has found it difficult to find work. A married father of five who is a few credits shy of a criminal justice degree from Howard University, he says he’d be willing to explore other careers, but that his heart is in police work.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s what I love doing,” Mr. Goldring said in a recent interview with The Times.

Marc Wilhite, the lawyer who represents Mr. Goldring and many other officers fired by Ms. Walton, says that based on previous cases he has handled, the law is on their side. In an email to The Times, he said Chief Lanier’s subordinates have increased trial board penalties in at least a dozen cases.

And based on the outcomes of some of those cases, and on other cases that predate her command, he said the rate of reinstatement of officers fired in spite of the findings of a trial board is about 80 percent.

Mr. Wilhite said the architect of the trial board rejection and firing process is former Assistant Chief Shannon Cockett, who was assigned to the Human Resources Division under Chief Lanier’s predecessor, Charles H. Ramsey, now the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

He recalled that Chief Lanier’s former head of human resources, Commander Jennifer Greene, hardly ever overturned trial board decisions, but that in 2008, Ms. Walton, a civilian, replaced her. “Immediately thereafter, Ms. Haines Walton and the Department began to increase the Trial Board Panel’s decisions,” he wrote.

In an appeal of the firing of former officer Khalela Dixon, who a trial board found “Not Guilty” of misconduct after she got into an altercation with a suspect who was being arrested in possession of PCP, Mr. Wilhite wrote, “The decision by Director Haines Walton is unjustified and oversteps her authority.”

The appeal states that the chief of police and her subordinates have authority only to confirm the penalty of the trial board, reduce it or order a new trial board. “As has been previously litigated,” Mr. Wilhite writes in the Dixon appeal, “The Department is legally precluded from circumventing the Trial Board decision and issuing its own guilty finding and penalty determination.

“If Ms. Walton did not agree with the Trial Board’s recommendations, she only had the power to remand the decision back to the Panel for reconsideration,” he continued. “By allowing Ms. Walton unfettered discretion to impose any penalty she desires, an officer subject to removal is placed in a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation that defeats the purpose of the hearing.”