Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Brutal" hazing didn't provide just cause for termination when others involved weren't disciplined

The State of Iowa terminated the employment of a State Trooper following receipt of a report of hazing during police academy basic training class four years earlier.

Grievant was part of an Academy basic training class between June and October of 2008. As squad leader, grievant was assigned to assist another recruit who was having difficulties with the training. Grievant did not have a good relationship with the other recruit and believed he was unsuited for the training. He also believed the Academy would not dismiss the other recruit because his father was a trooper. Grievant engaged in what the other officer described as a pattern of threats and harassment. Grievant admitted he was attempting to induce the officer to quit. Grievant also engaged in "bonding' the other recruit. This involved handcuffing him to his bunk, pulling down his pants and rubbing Bond powder onto his "butt cheeks." While he did this, grievant called over other recruits to observe. It was undisputed that grievant was advised to stop verbally abusing the other recruit and that he did so, but there was conflicting testimony about whether the Academy leaders were aware of the physical interaction. Both individuals ultimately graduated.

 Approximately four years later, grievant met with a captain of the state police to report what had taken place during basic training. The captain initiated an investigation of what he described as a "sexual assault." As a result of that investigation, the employment of grievant and a second student who was deemed to have participated in the "bonding" was terminated. Other individuals who had observed the incident were questioned but not disciplined. The union pursued the dispute to arbitration, arguing that grievant had  been disciplined  at the time of the incident and that further discipline constituted double jeopardy. They also argued that grievant had been "set up" by Academy staff to cause the recruit to resign. The union claimed that, in any case, the discharge was not for just cause since the investigation took too long, the incident in issue was isolated, and that there was no showing of any impact of the incident on grievant's ability to perform his job.

Arbitrator Harvey Nathan rejected most of these contentions. He found no double jeopardy, noting that the warning grievant received while at the Academy "was directed to harassment generally, and specifically to the audacious verbal abuse...." He also found no basis to conclude that the Academy staff bore any responsibility for grievant's "loss of judgment" on the day in issue. However hid did conclude that if  the Academy had  more closely monitored activities in the barracks the  incident could potentially have been avoided.  Moreover, had the incident been reported promptly corrective action could have been taken immediately. Given the way the issue came to light, however, "there was little that could be done other than terminate the grievant. It was not the length of time of the investigation that prejudiced [grievant]. It was the Academy's failure to be on top of misbehavior in the barracks."

 While noting "there can be no minimizing of the brutal attack on a weak and innocent bunkmate," the Arbitrator ordered the Department to reinstate grievant with back pay from the date of the award.  Arbitrator Nathan concluded:

     While the grievant was the instigator of the assault, it would not have happened as it did if other recruits did not cooperate. Had the staff learned of what happened, either from [victim] or others, an investigation could have been opened as it was almost four years later. While obviously not as severe as forcibly stripping [victim] and pouring a substance on a private part of his body, standing there and cheering on the perpetrators was aiding and abetting the assault. There were many more people involved in this incident than just [grievant]. Someone there should questioned [sic] what was being done. The failure to intervene warranted discipline of several other recruits. Surely, the Academy needs to teach recruits that Troopers do not simply turn away when they see a colleague do something intolerable, let alone join forces with the miscreant after the hazing began.
     The defect in the Department's case was its failure to explore the incident after the meeting with [grievant] with the thoroughness that occurred in 2012. And with regard to that investigation, the Department should have disciplined all of the recruits, now Troopers, who directly or indirectly, were involved in the bonding incident. While this would have been difficult, once it decided to terminate [grievant] it was a violation of the "just cause" principle to ignore the several others who were involved.

Arbitrator Nathan's award (13-GA-0208 - State of Iowa (Dept. of Public Safety 10/5/2013) can be found here.

Note: According to a report in the Des Moines Register, here, the termination of the second student allegedly involved in the incident has been overturned by Arbitrator Clair Brooks.

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