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Editorial: Law enforcement agencies need more leeway to hire, fire

Law enforcement agencies are facing tough firing and hiring challenges: Bad officers are difficult to can; good candidates are getting harder to find.

Last spring, legislation that would have made it easier to dump wayward officers and deputies failed to pass. Both measures would have prevented arbitrators from reinstating officers if the facts regarding their misconduct were not in dispute. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich spearheaded that effort, but union lobbyists successfully blocked it.

Now, Knezovich, who is president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, is trying a different tack that he hopes skirts union opposition. Under his proposal, which WASPC has endorsed unanimously, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission would be authorized to decertify officers who have committed crimes or lied to supervisors while on duty – regardless of any prior rulings by an arbitrator. Officers would be afforded a hearing and appeal during arbitration and the decertification process.

The goal is to remove wayward officers and to prevent them from joining other agencies.

Under the current system, arbitrators can reinstate officers even if the facts aren’t in dispute, leaving law enforcement leaders with a returning officer that many colleagues don’t want to work with. Plus, public trust in the institution is eroded.

“You lie, you die” ought to be the standard, but a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling muddied the waters. In that case, involving a Kitsap County sheriff’s deputy who was fired for 29 documented incidents of misconduct, including lying, the court upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate him, partly because it could not be established that telling the truth was an essential job function. Truly mind-boggling.

On the hiring side, law enforcement agencies are struggling to find qualified candidates. The Washington State Patrol is facing the loss of more than 200 troopers and sergeants to retirement in the next three years, but it’s finding it difficult to attract enough candidates who can pass the stringent screening process.

Now, the agency is revising some guidelines, especially as they relate to minor offenses. For instance, applicants who had used marijuana in the previous three years were automatically disqualified. (Along with background checks, applicants undergo polygraph tests.) WSP is dropping that time-frame to one year, and it may have to revisit this once pot is officially legal. The agency will also consider indiscretions committed as a minor on a case-by-case basis. Before, those could mean automatic rejection.

The Seattle Police Department has also eased its marijuana use restrictions, because it was eliminating too many applicants. Knezovich recently noted struggles in finding applicants, telling The Spokesman-Review, “If we have 20 candidates, we might get one we can hire.”

Law enforcement leaders may need to devise more sophisticated ways of evaluating candidates, especially if they’re given more leeway to fire bad actors.


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