Last week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced the firing of 13 police officers for their offensive Facebook posts. The announcement came almost two months after the Plain View Project released a catalog of racist, sexist and violent Facebook posts by police officers in Philadelphia and seven other cities. The group found troubling posts by 330 active Philadelphia police officers. A few weeks after the database was published, Ross took 72 officers off the street and put them on desk duty for the reminder of the internal investigation.
Another 56 will face disciplinary action, and 260 officers are still being investigated.
But the saga is far from over — even for the fired officers. At least a third of these officers could be getting their jobs back.
According to a recent analysis of data provided by police and conducted by BillyPenn, 77 of the 224 officers who were dismissed by the department since 2008 have been reinstated. That is because of the arbitration process that is a part of the contract between the city and the Fraternal Order of the Police.
Because police officers can’t strike, the arbitration process gives them a path to raise grievances. According to the FOP, they win in arbitration after the firing of a police officer about 90 percent of the time. The arbitration process is secretive, and while designed to protect police, can undermine police leaders’ ability to set standards for discipline or behavior. Numerous calls for reforming the system over the years have gone unheeded.
Perhaps the best known example of rehiring post-arbitration is from 2015, when six corrupt narcotics cops were fired by then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey only to be rehired after a federal jury acquitted them of criminal wrongdoing. They even got back pay.
Not every fireable offense is criminal but arbitrators time and again set criminal charges and conviction as the bar for losing in arbitration.
After the Facebook posts scandal broke in June, the FOP said that firing the involved officers would be “completely out of bounds.” After Ross announced the terminations, the president of the FOP, John McNesby, called the firings “irresponsible and premature.”
Posting on social media is not a criminal offense. But violating the police department’s social media policy and further eroding the public’s trust in the police should be enough to prevent someone from carrying a badge and a gun.
The FOP’s contract is up in 2020. The arbitration clause must be at the heart of the upcoming negotiations if the city truly wants to rebuild the public’s trust in the police department.
Firing a police officer takes courage, and Ross should be commended for doing it. We are still left with many questions: Who are the fired officers? What was the criteria for termination? Why was the Police Advisory Commission excluded from the process? Why is this investigation internal and not public?
It is important that Philadelphia has a police chief who can draw the line and make sure racist and violent language and behavior on social media has consequences — because racist officers have serious consequences for everyone in this city.