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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In an effort to gauge the outcomes of arbitration, City Paper filed a right-to-know request for the last 12 years of arbitration records from the city. The documents provided in response, which covered awards in 54 cases, didn't just fail to explain how arbitrators arrived at their decisions. They often failed to answer even the most basic questions about what the cases involved.

The identity of the officers involved is often difficult or impossible to determine, as is the issue under discussion. That makes it impossible to determine how often cases concerned discipline, as opposed to "interest" arbitration — cases in which the dispute involves contract provisions like time off or benefits. It's unclear what kind of discipline was being imposed, how often the FOP was able to overturn it, or what rationale led to the decision.

Some cases appeared to be missing entirely, a matter the law department has said is "under legal review" — though months later, it still hadn't offered an explanation.

One of the longest-serving chiefs in recent Pittsburgh police history, Robert McNeilly, knows the ins and outs of arbitration. During his 10-year stint as chief of the Pittsburgh Police, he frequently sparred with the FOP, fired an unprecedented number of officers, and earned a vote of no-confidence from the union.

McNeilly says that even though some arbitrators make "excellent decisions," the opacity of the process undermines public confidence in policing.

"Every single case should be tracked: what the chief decided, what the public-safety director decided, what the arbitrator decided [...] the final decision should be public," says McNeilly, now chief of the Elizabeth Township police. "[Officers] do some really bad things and they get away with it; it's little wonder the public loses faith."

"We give a lot of credit to Chief McNeilly to improving the professionalism and accountability in that department," says the ACLU's Walczak. "He was reviled by the union precisely because he was that kind of disciplinarian."

Chuck Bosetti, who held FOP leadership positions during McNeilly's reign, was one of those revilers. Bosetti stresses arbitration isn't to blame for all police discipline issues: "[The media] create the image that arbitration is all about putting bad cops back to work," he says. "A lot of the coverage has blindly excused everybody above the rank of lieutenant," meaning that poor discipline often comes from lax standards at the highest levels within the police bureau.

During his tenure as chief, McNeilly estimates about two-thirds of the officers fired under his watch got their jobs back — and he echoed Huss' point that arbitrators want to rule in favor of unions because they have an interest in getting more arbitration cases.

But arbitrator Michael Zobrak, says that notion is "pure baloney."

"I don't know any good arbitrator who keeps score," says Zobrak, who has served as a "neutral" on several panels — including panels that reviewed terminations of Pittsburgh Police officers. "The idea that we make money so we rule in one way or the other is just ridiculous."

Asked whether making the proceedings more transparent would assuage public concerns about the outcome, Zobrak says that's not his place to decide: It's a matter of state law, and the particulars of the contract between the city and FOP.

"We have access to all the information during the course of the hearing. I understand there are situations that on the surface appear to be very egregious. But we balance the facts. What you don't hear about are the cases where the firing is sustained. You only get really about half the story."

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