Sheriff Knezovich talks: How fired police officers get back on the job

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by OTHELLO RICHARDS & CBS NEWS

KREM.com

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 6:19 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 6 at 6:19 PM

(CBS News) Police chiefs' mission is to serve and protect the public from criminals. But across the country, those chiefs are battling bad apples within their own departments.

The police chiefs are finding it nearly impossible to fire some of their own officers, in part because of arbitration and union rules.

When a police officer breaks the rules, or the law, he or she is disciplined, and in rare cases, fired. But often, that's not the end of the story. Officers appeal their cases to state arbitrators, civil service boards, or civilian commissions -- and many times end up back on the job.

In Oklahoma, a police lieutenant was fired for elbowing a handcuffed prisoner in the mouth.

In Omaha, Neb., several cops were fired after beating a man outside a hospital.

And in Philadelphia, a police lieutenant was fired after smacking a woman down at a disorderly street festival. He has appealed to an arbitrator and his chances of getting his job back are good. In Philadelphia, nine out of 10 cops fired by the police chief are reinstated by an outside arbitrator.

It's a problem across the country that is frustrating police chiefs and sheriffs.

Asked if he's fired people and had to have them come back, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca -- who runs the biggest sheriff's department in the U.S. -- said, "Yes, and I believe that that's the process."

CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, who served in ranking positions at both the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments, said, "I mean, you've got people out there that you've already come to a judgment shouldn't be out there. And somebody's superseded your judgment. How does that feel?"

Baca said, "Well, it-- it feels that you have no control over your resources to the extent you need to have. That our judgment becomes somewhat nonsignificant (sic) in these certain cases."

In an infamous Milwaukee case, an officer was fired after he was caught on a dashboard camera punching a handcuffed woman in the face. The city's Civilian Police Commission overruled the chief and reinstated the officer. Under pressure from an outraged community, a week later, the police commission re-fired the officer.

In Spokane Wash., the sheriff has fired deputies, only to see them back on the job. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said, "There's no clearly defined public policy against a law enforcement officer being dishonest."

So Knezovich went to the Washington State Legislature to change the law.

Knezovich said, "The only thing it changes in the law is that if an arbitrator finds that a deputy has committed these crimes, and/or they have been dishonest, the arbitrator can't overturn the sheriff's discipline at that point. As in, they can't say, 'Yes, you committed these crimes, but you're getting your job back.'"

The police unions in Washington State oppose the law. They believe it gives one person too much power. Jamie Daniels, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said, "This legislation would allow a chief or a sheriff to make an accusation, investigate that accusation himself, be the judge and jury if that accusation was true, and then be the executor of the discipline for that."

But Knezovich believes he is the one person who is responsible for the officers under his command. Knezovich said, "I'm accountable to 471,000 people in Spokane County. They're the ones that will tell me when it's time to back down."

Knezovich testified for his bill in the Washington State Senate. It died quietly in committee without ever getting to the floor for a vote. But he'll try to bring it up again, and chiefs and sheriffs in other cities are watching.

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