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Local Governments and School Districts Blog

Police Managers Teeter-Totter: Praise and Reprimands

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on January 22, 2015
Filed under Local Governments and School Districts

“It’s always best to be consistent” and “maintain balance” are classic mainstays for advice in life. And like many things in life, such mainstays carry over into the workplace. I try to follow this advice when assisting my clients on a variety of topics, including in the practice areas of labor and employment law.

This advice came into focus recently while I was reading a newspaper report of a municipal employer’s termination of one of its police officers. The media reported, and impliedly questioned, whether the officer was properly terminated given that there were numerous written commendations received relatively close in time prior to the event which led to the termination. 

The law provides in most Wisconsin municipalities that the chief of protective service departments may take disciplinary action against a subordinate for infractions up to and including removal. Discipline includes a suspension, reduction in rank or removal from service. However, a disciplinary action may be challenged by the employee and reviewed by that municipality’s police and fire commission (PFC). A PFC applies seven statutory standards in determining whether the discipline was appropriate, including the standard of whether the discipline reasonably relates to the seriousness of the alleged violation and to the officer’s work record. In other words, does the punishment fit the alleged violation? 

It was unclear from the referenced media report whether that officer’s punishment fit the alleged violation. There were many facts and considerations that went unreported by the media. Nonetheless, and more importantly, the news article brings into focus municipalities and their chiefs applying the above advice of being consistent and maintaining balance with respect to the management and discipline of their subordinates. In other words, give praise where praise is due, but also maintain a written record if there are problems. This is especially important in today’s national climate where in some municipalities officers have been recently perceived as not being appropriately disciplined when interacting with citizens, e.g., Ferguson, MO.

If your municipality is considering disciplinary action of one of its police officers, deputies, or firefighters, or if your municipality would like to review its policies and procedures for both commendations and discipline, consider a careful legal review. It is always good to be prepared for questions over the management and potential discipline of protective service employees.