Thoughts on the HPD Disciplinary System

The HPD disciplinary system is an abomination.  Let’s just come out and say it, because it’s true.

Although some members of the Command Staff either don’t see it or don’t want to believe it, morale among the rank and file in this Department is at an all-time low.  In fact, it’s in the gutter.  Officers feel overly scrutinized, overly criticized and completely unsupported and unappreciated.  Worse, they feel like they are under attack from the very organization that purports to value its employees as “its greatest resource.”

Officers are afraid to do their jobs.  They don’t want to be proactive, they don’t want to self-initiate activities, they don’t want to handle difficult or complicated calls for service and they sometimes don’t even want to perform the basic functions of the job they signed up for.  Why?  It’s not because they have lost the passion to help people or to serve their communities or to fight crime. It’s not because they have lost their way or have suddenly forgotten why they became police officers to begin with.  It’s because they live in fear that making even the smallest, unintentional mistake in the performance of their duties might cost them days off or might ultimately cost them their job.

That is the reality.  It’s F’d up.  It’s just plain F’d up.

In my experience, the vast majority of HPD officers are hard-working, dedicated, conscientious civil servants, with the best intentions and motivations.  But even the best employees make mistakes.  Follow anyone, in any line of work, around with a camera all day and you are going to find mistakes.  It is an unavoidable fact of human nature.  People make mistakes.  People sometimes drop the ball or neglect their responsibilities.  Sometimes these things are minor, sometimes they are serious.    The question is not whether we should accept or ignore an employee’s mistakes or deficiencies in their job performance.  The question is, as an employer, what is the best way to address these mistakes and deficiencies?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that addressing an employee’s mistakes and deficiencies by issuing suspensions without pay may be one of the worst ideas in the history of law enforcement, if not the history of employment in general.  Who else deals with job performance issues using a suspension-based discipline model?  The answer: Nobody in their right mind. It is antiquated, it is anachronistic, it defies common sense and logic. I’ve heard it described as overly militaristic, but to me, that is an insult to the military.  Not even the military handles personnel problems this poorly or this stupidly.

Think about the entire concept for a moment.  Ostensibly, you, as an employer, want to maximize the performance, productivity and behavior of your employees—the people you have hired, trained and equipped to carry out your mission in the outside world.  When one of those employees makes a mistake that needs to be rectified, you respond to it by suspending the person and sending them home without pay, thereby losing their productivity and diminishing your own manpower.  And, in the process, you irreparably damage the employer-employee relationship by sewing the seeds of resentment and distrust.  Brilliant.  Absolutely brilliant.

Now think about how mistakes and performance deficiencies are handled in the private sector.  In the United States, in a free market, capitalist economy, private sector companies must be innovative, efficient, intelligent and forward-thinking if they want to survive.  They have to develop practices that maximize the productivity of their employees, which means fostering a healthy employer-employee relationship.  I would challenge anyone to argue with the following statement: No reasonable, well-run private sector company would ever handle employee mistakes or performance deficiencies by suspending employees without pay. The thought would be anathema to them—to  handle personnel issues by sending a person home, losing their productivity, and making them feel that they are no longer valued as an employee or a person.

How do private sector companies address personnel issues?  They handle mistakes  and performance deficiencies through a process of counseling, warnings, documentation and remediation.  When an employee makes a mistake, they are called in by their supervisors to discuss the issue.  They may be given a warning, they may be scolded (gently or otherwise), they may have documentation placed in their personnel file, they may be given remedial training and/or monitored more closely by their supervisors for a period of time.  Regardless of the mechanism, the employee is given the opportunity to correct their mistakes before more serious consequences are imposed.  For those employees that keep repeating the same mistakes or can’t improve their performance, after less intrusive means have been tried and proven to be ineffective, the hammer will eventually fall.

Here’s what the private sector understands that HPD leadership apparently doesn’t: most employees are good, conscientious workers.  They want to do a good job.  They want to perform well. They want to earn respect and accolades and promote through their organization.  When you bring mistakes and performance deficiencies to their attention, they will self-correct and they will modify their behavior.  They don’t have to be punished, or suspended, to teach them a lesson or to get them to perform the way you want them to.  The only employees that should be dealt with harshly are those employees who have clearly demonstrated that they simply can’t, or won’t, be rehabilitated.

Until the leadership in this Department wraps its collective brain around this philosophical truth, HPD will continue to be a place where the employees’ resentment of their employer eventually overcomes and extinguishes their desire to serve the public.

To be clear, the blame should not fall squarely on the shoulders of Chief Finner or the current Command Staff.  The HPD disciplinary system did not get this way overnight.  It is a behemoth that was born decades ago…raised and fostered by previous administrations through stupidity, poor decision-making and yes, sometimes malice.  Now, it is a behemoth on steroids.  The technological ability to record an employee’s every action, every decision and every word through body worn cameras has only served as rocket fuel for Internal Affairs investigations.  It has given the Department unfettered power to lord over its employees for even the most minor of transgressions.

To be fair, Chief Finner and the members of the Command Staff and the City’s negotiating team during the recent Meet & Confer negotiations should be lauded for their open-mindedness and progressive thinking when they agreed to the ARE election option (reduction to WR for suspensions of 5-days or less) in Article 31 of the Meet & Confer.  This was a great first step in the right direction.  However, it must be recognized that it was only one, single step.

Hopefully, what the ARE option will demonstrate to the Department is that you don’t have to suspend people to correct their behavior or get their attention.  You don’t have to lose their productivity by sending them home without pay, or sour your relationship with them by making them feel that they aren’t worthy of even showing up for work.  Just like in the private sector, the vast majority of employees will self-correct when mistakes or performance deficiencies are brought to their attention through a system of counseling, warnings, documentation, remedial training or close monitoring.  Those employees that are either unwilling or incapable of improving will eventually be washed out.

We should all keep in mind, however, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  HPD is an ocean liner, not a speed boat.  A large government organization like that cannot turn on a dime.  It’s going to take a long, sustained commitment from HPD leadership to make effective, lasting philosophical changes in the disciplinary system.  Having said that, there are a few things that the Department can do in the short term to start turning the ocean liner in the right direction:

  1. Don’t suspend people without pay, at least not for anything less than a major, intentional violation of policy (like a category D or E infraction) that might get someone in the private sector fired. This is not radical, it’s common sense.  Instead of suspending people, document their deficiencies and give them a chance to self-correct.  Treat training issues as training issues, not discipline issues.  Only when a person has demonstrated that they can’t, or won’t, improve should you move on to disciplinary measures, such as suspensions, demotions or firings.
  2. Within the current structure, put people in positions of influence and authority (IAD, ADC, etc.) who are fair-minded, reasonable, tolerant and lenient, and give them the discretion to be minimalistic when it comes to recommending discipline. Get rid of the people who overly critical and judgmental, and those who view their mandate as being that of a police prosecutor or executioner.
  3. Get rid of Oral Interrogations in IAD cases. I could write another entire paper on why these things are worthless and result in work product that is garbage, but I don’t think I need to.  All I really need to say is that Oral Interrogations were Art Acevedo’s brainchild.  Enough said.
  4. Don’t cite people for ‘conduct not alleged’ in IAD complaints, unless you discover an unalleged infraction that constitutes serious misconduct (again, category D or E).
  5. Populate the ADC with more rank and file officers and less upper-level management (especially those individuals that never did enough time on the streets to even have a valid opinion about anything). Make sure the civilian members of the panel are given some kind background instruction and training, particularly when it comes to things like patrol tactics and uses of force, so that they have a basic understanding of law enforcement principles before they begin rendering judgment on how officers perform in real life. In the absence of that, have someone present at ADC meetings, such as an Academy trainer, that can explain patrol tactics and address misunderstandings as they arise, before poor judgments are made.

These are changes that can be made by HPD leadership relatively quickly.  You don’t need to change anything in Chapter 143 or the Meet & Confer.  You don’t need to change how complaints are filed or how they are investigated.  All you need to change is your mindset in terms of how you respond to an infraction and how you treat your employees.

The bottom line is this…if nothing changes, if the process remains the same, a few years from now everyone will look back and say that the HPD disciplinary system was the giant, oversized anchor that finally dragged the entire ship, and everyone aboard, down to the bottom of the ocean.  If the Department’s leadership truly cares about this organization and its future, things MUST change.