DC’s law easing officer discipline upheld by federal appeals court

D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee can still skip going through the police union to discipline officers, thanks to a recent court ruling.

The Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Emergency Act of 2020, passed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis removed the D.C. Police Union from the disciplinary process, something the city believed was vital for dealing with officer misconduct more quickly.

Instead, officers have to take their disciplinary appeals to the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals or go to court.

The Fraternal Order of Police, Metropolitan Police Department Labor Committee and D.C. Police Union have challenged the legislation since its adoption, claiming it violates officers’ collective bargaining rights and therefore violates their constitutional rights under The Equal Protection Clause. The case was dismissed.

The union appealed the ruling, which was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals three-judge panel.

In its decision, the appellate panel disagreed with the union’s contention.

“Legislation that covers some occupations but not others — which neither burdens fundamental rights nor makes suspect classifications — satisfies equal protection if the distinction at issue is rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” the court said in its opinion.

The court postulated that the D.C. Council could have done this in an attempt to improve police accountability. The ruling went on to say that “equal protection is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices.”

The union also held that it has been a part of the disciplinary process for decades, and the change violates the Constitution’s Contract Clause. The panel disagreed, stating that “retrospective laws violate the Contract Clause only if they “substantially” impair existing contract rights.

Here, the union could not have reasonably expected to “insulate itself from legal changes after the 2017 agreement had expired by its terms.”

The changes went into effect after the 2017 police contract agreement ended in 2020.

In past conversations with WTOP on the topic, Gregg Pemberton, vhairman of the D.C. Police Union, said he believes the changes to the disciplinary process eliminate the system altogether, leaving many officers reluctant to engage out of fear of disciplinary action. He shared concerns that reluctance to engage will cause an increase in crime.

In addition to the changes to disciplinary actions, the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Emergency Act of 2020 also made changes to the use of force policies in D.C., mandated body camera footage be made public in officer-involved shootings and put civilians on the officer conduct review boards.

The union can still ask for a review of the decision by the full appellate court.

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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