By Ted Slowik

Daily Southtown | Jan 08

An Illinois Appellate Court ruled Dec. 24, 2020, that Country Club Hills could fire a police officer who was found to have lied about work-related duties.
An Illinois Appellate Court ruled Dec. 24, 2020, that Country Club Hills could fire a police officer who was found to have lied about work-related duties. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

A state appellate court recently ruled 2-1 that the city of Country Club Hills could fire a police officer who city officials saidlied about work-related duties.

The ruling sheds light on the roles of arbitrators who decide disciplinary cases just as state lawmakers are considering major police reform legislation, Country Club Hills city attorney John B. Murphey said.

“Arbitrators have almost complete and final decisions on police misconduct,” Murphey said. “Most people would be shocked to find out that you can’t fire a police officer because some arbitrator from downstate Illinois doesn’t like that decision.”

The ruling in the Country Club Hills case is significant in that an appellate court reversed a lower-court ruling that said the arbitrator’s decision was final. The arbitrator ruled the officer should receive a written warning.

Murphey successfully argued a narrow exception that said public policy can outweigh protections of collective bargaining agreements between unions representing police officers and municipal employers.

“I knew we had an uphill battle,” Murphey said. “I staked out the position that for police officers, now more than ever, honesty is an absolute value.”

Ivan Rittenberg, an attorney for the fired police officer, said he will ask the appellate court to reconsider its ruling.

“The ruling is not final,” Rittenberg said. “We will file a petition for a rehearing.”

The dissenting judge in the case issued a strongly worded opinion that picked apart the arguments of the majority.

The lawsuit stemmed from two disciplinary incidents involving former Country Club Hills police officer Derrick Charles, according to the Dec. 24 ruling. In 2017, the city accused Charles of lying about the circumstances of a detainee’s escape.

The city also moved to discipline Charles in 2017, saying he hid out in the parking lot of an abandoned nursing home instead of protecting public safety when a popular nightclub emptied on a busy ladies’ night.

In the first incident, Charles omitted key details when asked to provide a detailed written account of how the detainee escaped from his custody in a booking room at the police department.

Charles neglected to write in his account that he left the booking room door unlocked in violation of department policy, the court found. Charles also brought his firearm into the booking room in violation of policy, the court found. Videotape evidence showed what transpired, Murphey said.

“He didn’t know at the time there was video in the booking room,” Murphey said.

An Illinois Appellate Court ruled Dec. 24, 2020, that Country Club Hills could fire a police officer who was found to have lied about work-related duties.
An Illinois Appellate Court ruled Dec. 24, 2020, that Country Club Hills could fire a police officer who was found to have lied about work-related duties. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

In the second incident, the court found Charles lied about his conduct after volunteering to work an overtime shift.

Because of past incidents, the city provided extra patrols at closing time following Thursday nights at Room 183 Sports Lounge, a permanently closed establishment that was located in Heritage Plaza, 4167 183rd St.

When the bar closed at 2 a.m., Charles was sitting in his patrol vehicle parked at the former McAllister Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, a permanently closed facility that was located at 18300 Lavergne Ave., about a mile west of the club,according to evidence presented.

When confronted about his whereabouts, Charles said he was conducting traffic patrol at the time, according to the court ruling. However, Murphey said a GPS device in the vehicle established his precise location.

“GPS in my mind is the same as video,” Murphey said. “Police officers don’t go there to do traffic. They don’t back in behind an abandoned nursing home and turn off their engine for an hour to do traffic.”

Technology showed the vehicle was parked for an hour with the engine off, according to the ruling. Charles then claimed he was writing reports while in the vehicle. But Charles never provided copies of reports purportedly written during that time when given the opportunity as part of disciplinary proceedings, the court found.

Police officers who lie are unable to fulfill their duties, Murphey said. They must be held to a higher standard than firefighters, public works personnel, public school teachers, clerks and other taxpayer-funded positions because of the very nature of their work, he said.

“Police officers are society’s witnesses,” Murphey said. “Every time they write a traffic ticket they are swearing they saw a crime. They testify on witness stands and in affidavits for search warrants. The system crumbles if we cannot trust police officers to be absolutely honest.”

In Country Club Hills, as in most of south and southwest suburbs, a union represents police officers and collectively bargains on their behalf. Years ago, when police unions first formed, discipline was something that was negotiated, along with pay, benefits and other concerns.

That means the final word on serious disciplinary decisions is not decided by a police chief, city manager, mayor or board of local officials. When a municipality imposes a punishment, union contracts allow an employee to file a grievance. The process dictates that an arbitrator resolve the dispute.

The problem is that arbitrators are not accountable the way elected officials or courts are, Murphey said.

“Arbitrators want to get hired continuously.,” Murphey said. “The way to do that is to have a reputation that you’re neither pro-union nor pro-employer. In a lot of cases, they’ll issue rulings that split the baby.”

Both sides choose an arbitrator from a list of names. Unions will reject arbitrators who fire police officers, Murphey said, in favor of others more willing to seek compromises.

“Termination is not middle ground,” he said. “Unions are less likely to agree to have cases decided by arbitrators who have previously allowed terminations.”

The appellate court majority wrote that termination was the only appropriate punishment for an officer who had lied. A single instance of lying about official duties was sufficient grounds for discharge, just as a single instance of a pilot flying an airplane while drunk would warrant firing, the majority wrote.

The court ordered the arbitrator to issue a decision that affirmed the city’s right to terminate the officer’s employment.

The dissenting appellate court judge, however, wrote an opinion that strongly disagreed. It was not the court’s role to determine punishment in the case, she wrote, and the court lacked authority to reverse the arbitrator.

“The arbitrator’s decision is given great weight unless it can be shown that there was fraud, bias or misconduct by the arbitrator,” the dissenting judge wrote.

The court issued its ruling less than two weeks before lawmakers unveiled sweeping and controversial police reform legislation. The General Assembly convened Friday for a brief lame-duck session leading up to Wednesday’s start of a new session.

Lawmakers are set to consider a series of reforms pushed by the Legislative Black Caucus. House Bill 163, sponsored by state Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, proposes to eliminate cash bail, strip discipline from contract bargaining and hold officers personally liable for misconduct, among other major reforms.

Police unions and others have strongly criticized the proposed legislation.

The legislation proposes harsh penalties for police officers caught lying to cover for colleagues accused of wrongdoing.

“It also would make it a class 3 felony, punishable by two to five years in prison, for law enforcement officers to misrepresent facts during investigations of officer misconduct,” the Tribune reported.

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