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How Cities Lost Control of Police Discipline

The 83-page contract between Columbus and its police union shows how arbitration works there, similar to many other cities. The arbitrator, usually a lawyer, is picked from a short list of names submitted by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government agency that tries to prevent labor disputes. The city and the union each strike a name until one remains.

“Who do you end up with?” asked Daniel Oates, the former police chief in Miami Beach, Fla.; Aurora, Colo.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. “The guy who’s much more likely to have a middle-of-the-road decision in a termination. What’s the middle-of-the-road decision in a termination? Well, it ain’t a termination.”

Police chiefs and city officials often try to negotiate discipline before imposing it, to find a compromise the union will support. Failing that, they sometimes cut a deal.

Portland fired Sgt. Gregg Lewis in 2018 over a racist comment he had made nearly a year earlier at roll call: something along the lines of, “If you come across a Black person, just shoot them,” according to his termination letter. The comment came three days after a Portland police officer fatally shot a Black teenager; colleagues complained about Sergeant Lewis to a superior. The officer, who appealed, later said he was being sarcastic.

Sergeant Lewis, who did not respond to requests for comment, had little prior discipline and no documented history of such remarks. Portland police disciplinary guidelines said inflammatory language called for, at most, a three-week suspension without pay. So the city opted to pay him about $100,000 in back pay to retire.

“This is an egregious case, but the chance that this will go to an arbitrator and then be overturned, I believe, is too great,” Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, said at the time.

In November 2015, Stanley Kropik, a longtime Detroit police officer, spotted an orange Dodge Charger he suspected of eluding him during a traffic stop 11 days earlier. Officer Kropik again tried to pull the Charger over, but it took off.

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