Thursday, January 18, 2001

Arbitrators put police officers back on force

By Robert Anglen and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ten Cincinnati police officers fired in the last five years have gotten to keep their jobs.

        They've shown up for assignments drunk, been accused of asking women for sex, mishandled weapons and used excessive force during arrests.

        But in every case since 1996 where police officers have fought termination, an outside arbitrator has ruled against the city and reinstated them.

        More than frustrated, city administrators and lawmakers told the Enquirer that they are hamstrung by a biased system that has undermined a basic employee axiom: You can lose your job.

        Personnel records show that six other officers facing dismissal settled their cases out of arbitration. That means arbitrators never heard the cases. Of those, two resigned, two were reinstated and two were dismissed.

        “The situation is intolerable,” City Manager John Shirey said Wednesday. “There is no way I can run an organization and enforce discipline if every serious case is going to be overturned and the offending employee is put back on the job.”

        The most recent officer to be reinstated is Robert Hill, who went back to work last week after an arbitrator reduced his termination to a week's suspension without pay.

        Mr. Hill was fired for using excessive force when he slammed a 68-year-old Alzheimer's patient to the floor of a United Dairy Farmers store in November 1999.

        After the arbitrator's decision, Police Chief Tom Streicher said he did not want Mr. Hill back on the force.

        “I can't understand how every arbitrator could find in every case for the employee,” Mr. Shirey said.

        Bob Meade, senior vice president of the American Arbitration Association, says each case is decided on its own merits.

        Arbitrators base decisions on existing policies and contract agreements. Mr. Meade said cases might seem like slam dunks, but if there are no written policies or clear rules, then an arbitrator must decide against the city.

        “I've seen cases where you say, "Oh, my God. How can he rule that way?' But then it turns out there was no rule about it.”

        The city has contracted for about seven years with Mr. Meade's organization, a nonprofit agency that handles about 14,000 cases annually — of which half involve public agencies.

        Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday the city loses so many cases “probably because they're taking unreasonable positions. You would think that the city would learn to be more fair.”

        Arbitrators, by law, he said, are required to make fair conclusions.

        “If they were truly bad cops, they wouldn't have to rehire them.”

        But Councilman Pat DeWine says the system must change. On Wednesday, he sent a memo to the city manager asking him to report back in 60 days “to ensure that officers who are unfit to serve are removed from the force.”

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