Pubdate: Thu, 02 Aug 2001
Source: Cincinnati Post (OH)
Copyright: 2001 The Cincinnati Post
Bookmark: (Corruption)


In the past five years the city of Cincinnati has tried to fire 11 police 
officers for misconduct.

One had shown up drunk, in uniform, for a security detail at a soccer 
field. Another had solicited sex from female suspects in exchange for 
promises of leniency. Another had, in the words of Cincinnati's city 
manager, "body-slammed" an unarmed, 68-year-old Alzheimer's victim. Some of 
the other incidents were even worse.

Yet every single one of those officers got their jobs back when their 
appeals were heard by arbitrators.

It is against this backdrop - and, of course, the backdrop of the April 
riots and the enduring tensions between police and the civilians they are 
sworn to protect - that Cincinnatians must endure yet another insult: this 
week's ruling by an unelected, unaccountable arbitrator ordering the 
reinstatement of an officer, John Sess, who admitted planting drugs on a 

The latest decision may well be the most poorly written, ill-reasoned of 
the lot.

Even so, we're not holding our breath the city will prevail if it chooses 
to pursue an appeal to the courts. Its track record is so poor, and the 
underlying defects in the disciplinary system for police officers are so 
deep, there's little reason to believe the arbitrator's ruling will be 

The pertinent facts appear to be these:

In 1997 Sess, as part of his pending transfer to an elite anti-drug unit, 
was facing a lie detector test. In a conversation with the drug- unit 
supervisor preliminary to that test, Sess was asked if he ever had done 
anything improper as a police officer.

He admitted to the supervisor that he had, in 1984, planted marijuana on a 
suspect who had tossed aside his drugs while being chased. He said he had 
found the marijuana on a rear seat of his police vehicle during an 
inspection, but rather than turning it in he had kept it.

During his arbitration hearing, Sess asserted that he had put the bag of 
marijuana in the suspect's pocket as a way of tricking him into admitting 
that he had thrown away another, larger bag of marijuana during a pursuit 
that had just ended. (The ruse apparently worked: the suspect denied the 
marijuana Sess had planted was his, but admitted ownership of the other 
bag. He later pleaded guilty and received a short sentence.)

Sess also acknowledged in the 1997 conversation with the drug unit 
supervisor that in 1979 or 1980, after becoming a police officer, he had 
smoked marijuana with two other officers while off duty on a fishing trip.

Under police regulations that have been upheld by the courts, Sess could 
not be criminally prosecuted for responding truthfully to a direct question 
from a supervisor.

But he could face administrative discipline, and that is what the city, 
rightly, proceeded to do. In fact, city tried to have him dismissed from 
the force. Sess appealed, and the appeal was heard by an arbitrator jointly 
selected by the city and the Fraternal Order of Police.

After indulging in a gratuitous (though impassioned) condemnation of press 
accounts of Sess' case, arbitrator Harry Berns reached these stunning 

It's OK for police officers to keep marijuana that they find on the job, as 
long as they turn it in before they leave the force.

It's a "minor incident" when an officer who wants to join an elite 
anti-drug police unit admits that he himself has used illegal drugs 

It is nothing more than "trickery," and appropriate trickery at that, for a 
police officer to plant an illegal drug on a suspect.

This is an outrage.

And we take no comfort in the fact that the victim of Sess' officer's 
"trickery" was a suspected drug dealer. If such police behavior is 
sanctioned, how can anyone have any confidence that other officers won't 
start planting drugs on genuine innocents because they don't say "Yes, 
officer" fast enough or loud enough?

It would be a mistake to blame this on a lone, misguided arbitrator.

You don't lose 11 cases in a row, as the city has, because of bad 
arbitrators. The problems run far deeper than that.

They start with a collective bargaining agreement that allows disciplinary 
reports to be periodically expunged.

They include the city's miserable track record in building a proper case 
against bad officers, and its penchant for meting out disparate punishments 
in similar types of cases.

And it bears noting that it was the city administration, not the Fraternal 
Order of Police, which sought the arbitration approach because it was 
unhappy with the results it was getting when appeals of disciplinary cases 
were heard by the Cincinnati Civil Service Commission.

Ultimately, the particulars matter little to those of us who live and work 
in the city.

We support our police force, and we believe there must be a fair, 
even-handed system that allows officers to appeal disciplinary actions 
against them.

But we also need an effective way to get bad cops off the force. It's that 
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