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“By failing to discipline officers in these cases, MPD has not acted consistent with the requirements of District law,” the fiscal 2012 report states. “Because public confidence in the city’s police accountability mechanism requires that discipline be imposed when officers are found to have engaged in misconduct, we consider these to be serious matters warranting further scrutiny.”

The police department says it’s rare for the chief to deviate from imposing discipline but defended the practice in the three instances in question by the complaints board.

“The overarching issue in each case was that we did not feel that the OPC investigation had established sufficient cause to impose discipline — in one case, OPC reached a legal conclusion that was different than two separate prosecutors and two separate judges who had themselves reviewed aspects of the case,” D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump wrote in response to questions about the opinion.

As Chief Lanier has always held that she maintains the ultimate personnel authority to impose discipline, Ms. Crump said, there is not expected to be any increase in the number of cases with which the chief disagrees.

“All of the disciplinary rights and procedures that exist under our labor agreement with the union, including all appeals and external review, will continue to apply to OPC cases,” Ms. Crump wrote.

The attorney general’s opinion gives the chief “authority to exercise a great degree of discretion as to whether or what discipline should be imposed,” but it concludes that any factual determinations made on a case by the civilian office are not subject to the chief’s review.

“Consequently, any decision not to impose discipline after a finding of misconduct by OPC must be based upon some factor other than a disagreement with an OPC factual determination,” the letter states.

Although the Office of Police Complaints is concerned by the opinion, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital sees it as a victory for the complaints board because it makes the chief take the board’s finding of fact seriously.

“Once she accepts the fact there was misconduct, there seems to be a real burden on her that she would have to explain why discipline wasn’t necessary,” ACLU legal director Arthur Spitzer said.

The attorney general’s opinion also concluded that the police chief can discipline police officers who assert Fifth Amendment privilege and decline to cooperate with the office’s investigations. Such discipline could range from written reprimands or a few days’ suspension to recommendation for termination in the case of intentional, repeated, bad-faith refusals to cooperate.

Officials said the police department imposed discipline in two cases last year in which the office said an officer failed to cooperate with an investigation.

The police department’s union, which typically represents officers who are under investigation by the Office of Police Complaints, was happy to see that the opinion affirms the police chief’s discretion but raised concern about the department’s inability to re-evaluate the facts of cases.

Union leader Kristopher Baumann said arbitrators have overruled decisions by the civilian office in cases in which the investigations turned out to be flawed.

“I think it is important to reconcile the idea that the imposing agency, MPD, would have no role or ability to evaluate what the office of police complaints has put forward,” Mr. Baumann said. “There has to be the ability of someone else to say what makes sense.”