Friday, June 12, 2015

Court Upholds Discharge of Officer Over Old Offensive Photo

Earlier this week, a  Cook County judge upheld the termination of a Chicago Police Officer who posed for a racially offensive picture depicting him and another police officer, who are both Caucasian, holding rifles over an African American man wearing antlers on his head, posed as if he was hunted and bagged by the two officers. The judge upheld the decision of the Police Board to terminate the one officer (the other officer is serving prison time for unrelated offenses) for a variety of employee offenses, including behavior that brings discredit on the department.

Almost everyone might comment that the officer deserved to lose his job because his behavior was so egregiously offensive and disrespectful. The surprising part of the story is that the picture was taken over a decade ago, and only surfaced recently.  Since that time, the officer has not engaged in conduct which was ever considered discharge worthy.

Most police officers, like this one, are either members of a union or are subject to a statutory scheme which generally requires application of a just cause, or similar, standard for discipline. One element of just cause is that the discipline is issued timely. The police officer in the present case, is arguing, among other issues, that the picture, while ill-advised, was a product of peer pressure on him as a young officers and does not represent his current behavior or ability to serve as an officer.

The officer’s argument would be persuasive in most cases.  The Chicago Police Department, in this case, though has successfully argued that the photo is so racially offensive that regardless of when the behavior occurred, the officer cannot remain employed.   Had the employee involved in the photo held virtually any position with the City other than police officer, he would have likely prevailed with his argument.  The position of special trust that public safety employees have, holds them to a higher standard of conduct. The City of Chicago so far has prevailed.

Maybe the decision is a sign of the times where the public and public safety employers are far more sensitive to the interaction of police and the public. One thing is for sure, some employee misconduct is so egregious that there can be no “statute of limitations”, so to speak, because once the behavior comes to light, it severely impairs the ability of the employee to fulfill their duties. The officer has vowed to appeal.