In a Bind: Arbitration gives officers a method of fighting termination, but what recourse does the public have when they're rehired? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In a Bind: Arbitration gives officers a method of fighting termination, but what recourse does the public have when they're rehired?

"By the time the process is over, no one is disciplined unless they're sitting in jail."

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Public Safety Director Huss — who held the position during the Hlavac, Brown and Abel cases — says one of the most frustrating parts of the job has been an inability to keep officers he thinks are unfit off the force.

"The city needs the ability to terminate officers," Huss says. "Why would you employ a police officer that pistol-whipped and accidentally shot someone on his night off? The common person says, ‘This is crazy.' And they're right: It is crazy. It's just never gotten enough attention."

Huss argues one reason arbitrators rule in favor of the FOP is because they know there won't be blowback. "These arbitrators aren't accountable," he says. "They never have to give an interview; they never have to answer in the form of an election. They're kind of hidden; no one even knows their names."

What's more, arbitrators don't want to ruin the livelihoods of police officers, Huss says. If an arbitrator upholds a termination, it is next to impossible for the officer to land another law-enforcement job.

Huss also argues a slightly more cynical position: that arbitrators have a financial incentive to side with the union. Since grievances are initiated by the union, if arbitrators start siding with cities, there might be fewer cases to hear — and less money to be made.

Bryan Campbell, a veteran lawyer for the Pittsburgh's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police who has handled numerous arbitration cases, has a different take. He argues the city often overreaches when disciplining officers — especially when the allegations are sensationalized in the media.

In the cases the FOP appeals, Campbell says, "we have a basis to say that either there should be no discipline, or if there should, it should be short of firing. The idea of discipline isn't to punish people; it's to make you a better employee." And, Campbell adds, since personnel issues are often in play at arbitration hearings, it wouldn't be appropriate to make them open to the public.

Abel has been widely held up as an example of an officer who shouldn't have gotten his job back, but Campbell says the picture is more complicated. Though Abel was off duty when he shot someone on the street, Campbell explains, he was sucker-punched and was only trying to arrest the culprit. It just didn't turn out to be the guy he shot.

"All he was trying to do is arrest somebody who was guilty of an assault," Campbell says, although he adds, "Should he have taken his gun out in those circumstances? Probably not."

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