Over the last decade, Philadelphia taxpayers have paid at least $5 million — possibly significantly more — to police officers through the oft-criticized arbitration process that reinstates fired cops and allows others to escape lesser punishment imposed by police brass, according to city financial records.
The newly disclosed figures show that scores of officers identified in a recent Inquirer investigation received about $2.5 million, mostly in back pay, after internal police investigations sustained a wide range of misconduct allegations, from domestic violence and drunken driving, to submitting false records and fatally shooting an unarmed suspect.
The Inquirer’s analysis of those 170 arbitration cases between 2011 and early 2019 shows that the officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, was successful in reducing or overturning police discipline about 70 percent of the time when contested by officers.
Previous reporting by the Daily News showed that between 2008 and 2010 the city had paid $2.4 million in back wages and lost overtime to 24 fired police officers who won their jobs back through arbitration.
» READ MORE: From 2010 — Ramsey's firings strain city's coffers
The $5 million paid out over the last decade is likely a low estimate, because the city could not find dozens of financial records.
Andrew Richman, chief of staff to Solicitor Marcel Pratt, said the city was unable to locate payout information sought by The Inquirer since June for more than 30 officers who, records show, expected to receive back pay or other payments through an arbitration ruling or settlement. The payments range from a few days of work to up to 19 months.
Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for the city, said much of the information is likely buried in an old payroll system and could not be easily retrieved.
The arbitration process has long confounded police commissioners and city officials who say it is a roadblock to ridding the department of problem officers. Mayor Jim Kenney said earlier this month that the city would seek to make improvements in the next FOP contract, which expires in June.
FOP officials counter that binding arbitration ensures that cops accused of wrongdoing receive due process. The union blames the frequent reinstatements and overruled disciplinary actions — and hefty amounts of back pay — on police commissioners who either rush to punish cops accused of misconduct, or base their actions on incomplete Internal Affairs investigations.
“We may not even like the guy, but you have to fire him right," Richard Costello, a former FOP president, told The Inquirer during a July interview about the arbitration system. “If you fire him right, we can’t win.”
Harvey Rice, executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the city’s fiscal watchdog board, said Thursday that changes were needed to the process.
“The upcoming police contract negotiations is an opportunity for the City to reform the arbitration system, as well as implement the recommendations we made to reduce police overtime costs,” Rice said.
The unredacted arbitration records, obtained by The Inquirer earlier this year, show that some officers were reinstated after they were cleared of criminal charges, or the city was unable to produce key witnesses at arbitration hearings that sometimes occurred months, even years, after the Internal Affairs investigation.
In other cases, officers pleaded guilty to criminal charges, or an arbitrator agreed that some sort of misconduct had occurred — but they were still reinstated, or saw their discipline reduced.
“It’s a huge frustration for citizens who sometimes are the victims of improper behavior," said David Thornburgh, head of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. “The frustration is compounded if you see people who were fired with justifiable cause who make their way back on the force then seemingly get this bonus of pay. It sort of doubles the injustice.”
The largest documented payout since 2011 went to Officer Edward Sawicki, who was accused of using a racial epithet toward a black man and threatening to shoot him in 2013 near Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak shops at Ninth and Wharton Streets in South Philadelphia.
Sawicki, who denied the allegations, was fired in May 2014. A jury acquitted him of making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct charges in April 2016 but could not reach verdicts on simple assault and a weapons count for allegedly pulling up his shirt and displaying a gun.
When Sawicki’s case went to arbitration in October 2016, the alleged victim was not available to testify, city officials said.
“[T]he arbitrator therefore is presented with a situation where really the only competent testimony is that of [Sawicki],” arbitrator Robert E. Light wrote in ordering the officer to be reinstated. Sawicki received $189,529 in back pay.
Other fired cops who were reinstated received smaller financial awards, like Officer David Klayman, who was terminated in November 2012 for a domestic-abuse incident involving his girlfriend.
Klayman’s girlfriend, who worked at that time as a police officer in Bucks County, had obtained a protection-from-abuse order against him, which resulted in Klayman’s losing the ability to legally carry a firearm.
Arbitrator Ernest Weiss reinstated Klayman in 2013, stating that his “private off-duty conduct” hadn’t damaged the department’s “public image.” Weiss also repeatedly noted that Klayman’s girlfriend was seeking a position in the Philadelphia Police Department — suggesting, in so many words, that her desire to work in Philadelphia undercut the validity of her abuse claims.
“The obvious question arises that, if she truly needed a PFA against him, why would she arrange to be working for the same employer, the City of Philadelphia, and thereby risk possibly being in his proximity every workday … ?” Weiss wrote. He added: “She can’t have it both ways.”
It is unclear how Weiss determined that Klayman and his girlfriend would be in close proximity if they both worked on the police force. The department has approximately 6,500 officers in districts and detective divisions across a city of 134 square miles.
Klayman received $60,539 in back pay.
Former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey was a vocal critic of the arbitration system during his eight years in Philadelphia. He still contends that the process needs to be reformed — that the litany of overturned firings, and the millions in taxpayer funds spent on back payments for those officers, ultimately tarnish the Police Department’s reputation.
“The bottom line is this: The system doesn’t get results that the public has a right to expect,” he said. “That’s the third party that gets overlooked. They’re not even part of the conversation.”
Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to address long-simmering complaints about the revolving-door nature of police arbitration. State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny) introduced a bill earlier this month that would create a training council for law enforcement officers.
The state has had a board to certify police officers since 1974. But that agency, the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, only strips a police officer’s license in rare circumstances, such as when a cop is convicted of a felony. (Since 2015, MPOETC has revoked the licenses of only 35 officers.)
Wheatley’s bill would allow a new training council to revoke a cop’s license in a range of other scenarios, including if one engages in “any unprofessional, unethical, deceptive or deleterious conduct or practice harmful to the public. ...”
“Like any industry, we think law enforcement should have unified standards,” Wheatley said. “When there are errors or mistakes or conduct that’s unbecoming of what our standards are, we think there should be independent processes and checks and balances for addressing that.”
Wheatley’s bill is cosponsored by four Philadelphia Democrats: Reps. Donna Bullock, Malcolm Kenyatta, Chris Rabb, and Jordan Harris.
The Inquirer recently asked FOP president John McNesby what he thought about the prospect of a new state agency dedicated to police oversight.
“I don’t believe that’ll happen,” he said.
McNesby has seen reform efforts come and go since first being elected union president in 2007. On Sept. 24, he was reelected to a new three-year term during the FOP’s monthly board of directors meeting. He faced no opposition.