Denver police mull new discipline 'matrix'

By Betsy Lehndorff
The Rocky Mountain News
DENVER Denver Safety Manager Al LaCabe is proposing a new way of disciplining problem cops - an approach that could free department brass from adhering to penalties imposed in the past.

The new approach hinges on the creation of a "discipline matrix" that would spell out the consequences officers would face for specific infractions, he said. It would list fines, suspension periods, even firing, depending on the severity of the offense.

Adoption could speed up the discipline process.

Some law enforcement experts are calling LaCabe's idea long overdue, saying it would remove any shred of favoritism or discrimination from the process.

The matrix in Phoenix Denver isn't the first city to consider implementing a discipline matrix for police officers. Phoenix has been pioneering the approach for the past several years. Here's a look at how the matrix works there:

* When it was implemented: 2001

* Results: 99 employees were suspended for 40 hours or more, demoted or fired for serious violations in the first five years.

* Few repeat offenders: Only seven of the officers who were suspended or demoted have been disciplined for a second violation.

* What the department has learned: Suspensions can be counterproductive. Under the city's matrix, the longest suspension is six weeks. "Suspending an officer hurts his family, his co-workers because there is no one else to fill in, and punishes the community and city by having that officer unavailable," Cmdr. Eric Hailey said. The city launched a one-year pilot program Jan. 15 to reduce the length of suspensions.

* How the policy applies to minor violations: Officers who have committed less serious infractions, such as failing to log evidence properly, get additional training rather than severe penalties.
But others argue the safety manager is trying to fix a system that isn't broken. They worry that a matrix might be too rigid for the type of complaints police officers face.

"The discipline matrix starts in the middle - it's one-size-fits-all and that is not an appropriate system," said Sgt. Mike Mosco, president of the 1,400-member Denver Police Protective Association.

Clear set of expectations

LaCabe is familiar with opponents' arguments, but he is standing his ground. He hopes to have the new system in place by Feb. 1.

"If we didn't believe it was fair, I wouldn't be doing it," he said. "I think a demonstration over time will show that it is a fair system to everyone involved."

In addition to training officers in advance about specific consequences, LaCabe said the discipline matrix would take into account aggravating and mitigating circumstances, such as a history of offenses or commendations.

Police accountability advocates say the system would give officers and the public a clear set of expectations.

"It's important and it's needed," said Sam Walker, a retired criminal justice professor in Omaha. "Police discipline is a secret world, and in most departments, you can't find out what discipline was imposed."

A matrix brings greater confidence to communities, especially where there is racial and cultural diversity, Walker said.

The approach is relatively new, however.

Oakland, Calif., was ordered by a federal judge to draw up a matrix for its police department, and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has developed one, too, Walker said. Phoenix has been using a discipline matrix since 2001.

So far, though, none of those programs has been evaluated by an outside source, Walker said.

"Comparative" discipline

Under Denver's present system, errant officers are punished for departmental violations according to a system of "consistent" or "comparative" discipline.

The procedures for reviewing and appealing complaints is set forth in a 38-page chapter on "performance" in the Denver Police Department Operations Manual.

The policy allows LaCabe or Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman to determine the discipline they think most appropriate.

But layered over the policy is an appeals system. The Denver Civil Service Commission can overturn LaCabe and Whitman's punishment if it is inconsistent with the way officers have been punished in the past.

Most decisions aren't appealed. But in high-profile cases involving the use of deadly force, brutality or racial discrimination, the system can take months, even years, to reach a conclusion.

One recent case stands out: the back-and-forth punishment of officer James Turney.

On July 5, 2003, Turney shot and killed 15-year-old Paul Childs, a developmentally disabled teen who refused to drop a knife.

LaCabe suspended Turney for 10 months after finding he violated departmental shooting procedures.

Turney appealed, and in January 2005 a civil service commissioner ruled he had not violated any use-of-force policies. The commission fined him one day's pay plus five days suspension, stemming from two unrelated infractions.

LaCabe and Whitman countered by reinstating their original punishment. In response, Turney filed an appeal in civil court seeking back pay for the time he was suspended. The case is still pending.

After his return to work, Turney was given a desk job. He was promoted to technician in 2005.

Would the Turney case be handled differently under the discipline matrix?LaCabe couldn't say.

"We haven't settled on what the matrix is going to be specifically yet. We are discussing all of those. We wouldn't be able to do a comparison at this point."

Changing the rules

Past efforts to change Denver's disciplinary system have nearly always been blocked by a formidable opponent: the City Charter.

A change to the charter would require voter approval.

LaCabe, however, believes his proposal is different. He says a matrix could co-exist with comparative discipline, making it unnecessary to put the issue on any ballot. Instead, LaCabe plans to work on changing the civil service commission's rules.

But some say that, too, could be an uphill battle.

"You have the longtime, very entrenched civil service discipline process," said Denver City Council President Michael Hancock, who represents northeast Park Hill, Stapleton, Montbello and other culturally diverse areas.

Hancock has taken part in discussions about the proposal.

"You also have a very active and ensconced union that you want to have buy into the new discipline policy," Hancock said.

Union officials give little indication that they plan any "buy in."

Mosco says the current system is effective.

"There are many forms of overview," he said. "The department investigates an allegation, and if the allegation is sustained, the officer receives discipline."

Like all citizens, police officers have the right to due process, and can appeal decisions, he said. The city also has a discipline review board made up of a combination of officers and citizens, although its findings are not made public.

Another layer of oversight is available through the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor, which publishes quarterly and annual reports tallying infractions and punishment.

"I think we have a system in place that has shown over time that it works," Mosco said.

Copyright 2007 Rocky Mountain News

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