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Penalties for Hub officers stiffened

Effort 'kills morale,' police union says

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 29, 2008

Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis is meting out harsher punishments for officers who commit infractions that once resulted in reprimands and short suspensions, raising protests from union officials and lawyers.

An officer is facing a two-week suspension for frisking a motorist for a gun after a routine traffic stop, a violation that in the past rarely led to any disciplinary action, according to the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. In the past year, another officer was suspended for 30 days after he looked up an assault victim's criminal background on a department computer as a favor to a friend who was accused of the assault. Such a violation used to be punished by about a week's suspension. And an officer who accepted money for competing in an "Ultimate Fighting" bout at Foxwoods Resort Casino and then failed to report the full extent of his injuries received a 10-day suspension, a punishment once reserved for such major offenses as domestic assault.

Davis has seen three former police officers convicted of plotting to guard a shipment of cocaine since December 2006, when he was sworn in as commissioner. He said the beefed-up punishments are intended to stop misconduct before it becomes widespread.

In the past, the department has been criticized for being too lax in its discipline of wayward officers. But officials from the three unions that represent Boston police say the tougher penalties are fueling mistrust and hurting Davis's relationship with the rank and file.

"It kills morale," said Detective Jack Parlon, president of the Boston Police Detectives Be nevolent Society. "We need to apply punishment, but the punishment has to meet the crime, and I think it's out of proportion right now."

Davis said he understood the union's position, "but we have some serious issues in the Boston Police Department that have got to be addressed."

"I think it's important to take all of these cases seriously and to protect the good officers on the street by not letting bad officers denigrate the badge," he said.

The tension between management and rank and file is rising at a sensitive time for the department, which is still suffering from a series of scandals, including the convictions of the three officers, another officer charged with armed robbery, and a federal grand jury probe into steroid use by police that grew out of the cocaine case.

A Globe review of disciplinary actions taken in 2007 and 2008 shows that Davis is handing out harsher penalties than officers received in previous years.

Domestic violence charges that usually led to 10-day suspensions now often result in 30-day suspensions. In 2002, officers caught drinking on duty received two-day suspensions: now, those suspensions are for five days.

Union officials said they understand that the commissioner has to crack down on serious misconduct, but said they believe that Davis has been too hard on officers charged with offenses they consider minor.

For example, the officer who received the 30-day suspension for running the computer search for his friend was handed a tougher penalty than an officer who was disciplined in 2003 after he disobeyed an order to stop chasing a suspect he had been pursuing in his cruiser. The officer followed the suspect the wrong way onto Interstate 93, and the suspect crashed, killing himself and injuring a bystander. That officer received a 15-day suspension.

A sergeant who improperly allowed four people to park in police headquarters then allegedly denied he did so was suspended for three days.

"Under this commissioner, punishment, rather than being remedial, has been punitive and hurt people financially," said Thomas Drechsler, a lawyer for the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. "Under this commissioner, it's gone back to being Draconian and extreme."

The dispute underscores the dilemma faced by past police commissioners, said Thomas Nolan, professor of criminal justice at Boston University and a former Boston police lieutenant.

"The commissioner is in the very unenviable and delicate position of having to satisfy the community and assure them that he takes allegations of wrongdoing very seriously, while at the same time assuring the rank-and-file officer that he will treat them equitably and even handedly," Nolan said, adding that Davis "is walking a tightrope, to an extent."

Union officials said they were able to work with previous commissioners on a case-by-case basis to decide punishments that they considered reasonable.

"The reason why people have no faith in the disciplinary system is because of the harshness of the punishments," Drechsler said. "Not only the harshness, but the manner in which the disciplinary process is conducted."

When an officer is charged with misconduct, the department may offer a suspension, which the officer can reject in favor of a disciplinary hearing.

The hearing officer who weighs the evidence against the accused officer is usually a police official appointed by the commissioner. It is a practice that union officials believe is unfair because the official is unlikely to rule against charges brought by department supervisors.

"There has always been that sentiment that the deck has been rigged," said Nolan, who once was vice president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, which represents sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.

He said police officers can appeal the decisions of the disciplinary hearing officer, "but there is a sense that there is a foregone conclusion.

"It's a fair question to ask the commissioner if at some point, he might not consider replacing the model that exists and lacks credibility among the rank and file for very good reasons," Nolan said.

Davis said the current system is just, but added that he would consider changes, such as hiring a retired judge to preside over hearings. "I'm always looking at better ways to do things," he said.

Some punishments handed out in 2007 appear to have followed the earlier, lenient pattern. For example, an officer accused of domestic violence served only five days of a 30-day suspension.

"Each case has to be decided on the merits of the particular case," Davis said. "Honest police officers who make a mistake have nothing to worry about, but, if there is misconduct, we will deal with it appropriately."

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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