Police Disciplinary Appeals
66 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018 Last revised: 13 Aug 2019
Date Written: March 1, 2018
This Article argues that police disciplinary appeals serve as an underappreciated barrier to officer accountability and organizational reform.
Scholars and experts generally agree that rigorous enforcement of internal regulations within a police department promotes constitutional policing by deterring future misconduct and removing unfit officers from the streets. In recent years, though, a troubling pattern has emerged. Because of internal appeals procedures, police departments must often rehire or significantly reduce disciplinary sanctions against officers that have engaged in serious misconduct. But little legal research has comprehensively examined the appeals process available to officers facing disciplinary sanctions.
By drawing on a dataset of 656 police union contracts, this Article empirically analyzes the disciplinary appeals process utilized in many of the largest American police departments. It shows that the vast majority of these departments give police officers the ability to appeal disciplinary sanctions through multiple levels of appellate review. At the end of this process, the majority of departments allow officers to appeal disciplinary sanctions to an arbitrator selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer. Most jurisdictions give these arbitrators expansive authority to reconsider virtually all factual and legal decisions related to the disciplinary matter. And police departments frequently ban members of the public from watching or participating in these appellate hearings. While each of these appellate procedures may be individually defensible, they combine in many police departments to create a formidable barrier to officer accountability.
This Article concludes by arguing that the law should vest appellate authority in police disciplinary cases in democratically accountable actors. It also offers additional substantive steps that municipalities could take to ensure officers have adequate procedural protections from arbitrary punishment, while recognizing the important community interest in police accountability.
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