Sunday, March 3, 2013

Police officers, Chain of Command and Discipline

An arbitrator has upheld the discipline imposed on a police officer for his conduct in handling a domestic violence call that also involved the sexual abuse and,ultimately, the rape of a minor.

Three officers responded to a call reporting an incident of domestic violence and observed a shirtless male running from the residence. Grievant and the Sergeant in charge attempted unsuccessfully to locate the fleeing individual. After the wife was transported to the hospital, all of the officers involved left the scene, leaving a fifteen year old babysitter caring for the couple's three young children. The perpetrator was also accused of having sexually abused the fifteen year old, but Grievant's knowledge of that allegation was disputed. After the police left the scene, the perpetrator returned and raped the fifteen year old in front of the couple's eight year old daughter. 

The Sergeant in charge was terminated for his failure to follow the Department's policy on domestic violence, and that termination was upheld by Arbitrator Richard Boulanger. Grievant was suspended for five days for failing to follow policy by leaving the minors alone in the house.

The Union grieved the suspension, asserting that since Grievant was not the officer in charge he had no authority to decide whether continued police presence was necessary and, being without authority, could not carry out the policy he allegedly violated. Responding to the claim that he should have at least "spoken up", the Union asserted that Grievant was the least knowledgeable officer on the scene and was not qualified to question the Sergeant. It noted further that "on rank alone" Grievant could not overrule the Sergeant. According to the Union, Grievant was bound by the principle of Chain of Command and Grievant could not second guess his superior's decision.

Arbitrator Sharon Henderson Ellis rejected these defenses, and denied the grievance. The Arbitrator noted:

The Union makes an undisputed and important point. The principle of chain of command is central to any police operation and failing to follow the chain of command could result in chaos and dysfunction.
Also obvious, however, is the reality that an officer at a crime scene, even when not serving as the officer in charge, cannot act mindlessly, suspending all judgment and common sense simply because he is not the ultimate officer in command.

The Arbitrator determined that the evidence supported a finding that Grievant had been made aware of the claimed sexual abuse of the babysitter prior to leaving, and found the Grievant's conduct "nearly incomprehensible". She concluded that the suspension was "amply supported by just cause."

The Martha's Vineyard Times reports on both cases, Arbitrator rules Tisbury was justified in firing Sgt. Fiske , and Arbitrator rules Tisbury chief correctly disciplined officer, and the awards are available here and here.

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