Administrative Leave Practices Can Hit Taxpayers Hard
(MintPress) — It’s an expensive way to say innocent until proven guilty. And it often comes at the expense of taxpayers, which makes administrative leave for public servants a contentious issue. Recently, a St. Paul, Minn. police officer was placed on administrative leave so an investigation could be conducted on an incident which captured St. Paul Police Officer Jesse Zilge on video kicking, using Mace on and slamming a suspect’s head on the hood of his cruiser.
As the raw video went viral, the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) stood by Zilge, raising questions over how widespread administrative leave maintains an officer’s lifestyle in the face of adversity.
Administrative leave is most commonly used throughout an investigation that involves police, schools and hospitals. The leave typically involves a temporary reprieve from the job with pay and benefits still intact. In instances of public schools or public police forces, taxpayers are often on the hook for the expenses that accrue throughout the investigation. Sentiment toward the recent SPPD investigation also follows a police settlement that cost the city $250,000 for a police brutality incident in 2010.
If the precedent of administrative leave sounds unfair to those in the private sector, it could be due to the fact that the leave is usually reserved for those in non-business institutions. Once placing an employee on administrative leave, an investigation is carried out into the allegations that resulted in the employee’s leave. The hiatus does not automatically mean that an employee will be disciplined or is even guilty of the allegations against them, which protects their pay and benefits. Stripping an employee of pay and benefits over allegations prior to an investigation would be an assumption of guilt prior to a proper investigation.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) says that administrative leave is a risky measure because it could damage the reputation of those under investigation if it yields no wrongdoing.
“Placing an employee on administrative leave for investigative purposes is not a disciplinary action and cannot itself be used as proof of wrongdoing. It should not harm an employee’s record or affect his performance evaluation,” ATPE explained. “An employee who is cleared of wrongdoing should not feel any lasting consequences related to his job. On the other hand, if the district reprimands or otherwise disciplines an employee based on the underlying allegations that led to the administrative leave, it might reflect on the employee’s performance evaluation or future employment.”
For police, the most common instance that would prompt leave would be an officer-involved shooting. Any time an officer discharges a firearm, administrative leave is common so the department can investigate the circumstances around the incident. For common firearm use, those investigations could range from a mere day to a week. At the United States Department of Justice, administrative leave for agents may not exceed 10 days without approval from the Assistant Attorney General for Administration.
But administrative leave also raises questions over how accountable police officers are for their actions and whether the system needs to be revised. In 2009, a sheriff’s deputy in Stearns County, Minn. was on paid leave for almost three years while he was being investigated for criminal sexual conduct and allegations that he sexually abused three teenagers. The sheriff, Sgt. Phil Meemken, finalized a plea agreement, which resulted in his release from the department. Now, the sheriff’s department is looking for a way to recover more than $237,000 in salary and benefits that were given to Meemken during his administrative leave.
Stearns County acknowledges that it has never been in a situation where it has asked for back payment from a union employee such as Meemken and is seeking legal advice, as a decision on the matter would set a precedent.
And even when wrongdoing is acknowledged on behalf of a public official, the monetary damages are not always paid out at the expense of the offender because cases are often taken out against departments and not individuals. In 2006, a Chicago Water Department employee was assaulted during a payment collection by a lieutenant, Glenn Evans. The City of Chicago – through taxpayer money – was ultimately on the hook for the $99,999 payout, of which Evans contributed nothing to.
Taxpayers in Chicago were also on the hook for $7.17 million for two settlements of alleged torture by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The New York Police Department (NYPD), which has made headlines over the past year for its stop-and-frisk policies to its handling of police brutality claims, put a handful of cops on administrative leave after the officers were found responsible for wounding nine bystanders during an August shootout near the Empire State Building. Initial reports said the gunman being targeted by police was responsible for shooting passer-bys, but the NYPD confirmed that its men, who will all return to the force, were responsible.
Administrative leave has also become a growing practice among religious officials as claims of past abuse continue to come up around the nation. Earlier in the summer, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Ohio placed Reverend Thomas Brosmer on administrative leave after a former student came forward with sexual abuse allegations. Because of the private workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome, the CDF could immediately dismiss Brosmer if it feels like there is enough evidence to do so.
The Vatican’s official definition for administrative leave is “a term used for the temporary removal of a cleric from his assignment during an investigative process, prior to any determination of guilt or innocence.”
Calling for a change
When instances of blatant police abuse are captured, it’s best to part ways with said officers; that’s the message of many members of the Occupy movement after an incident at the University of California, Davis. Last year, a quiet protest at the campus was quashed when campus police officer John Pike began pepper spraying individuals sitting across a sidewalk with their arms interlocked. The incident was captured on film and Pike was placed on administrative leave while an investigation was carried out.
“I take full responsibility for the events on Friday and am extremely saddened by what occurred,” school Chancellor Linda Katehi said. “I eagerly await the results of the review, and intend to act quickly to implement reforms that will safeguard the rights of our students, faculty and staff to engage in nonviolent protest.”
Members of the protest group began saying the school was dragging its feet and abusing the administrative leave policy after more than eights months had passed and Pike was still on administrative leave. Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic explained how puzzling the nature of the investigation really was.
“In five months’ time, two independent bodies managed to complete an exhaustive investigation into every aspect of the incident,” Friedersdorf wrote. “Yet even after an additional three months, the internal affairs process – the investigation, the hearings, and perhaps the appeals – is still not completed for one single individual, whose actions are on videotape.”
In the beginning of August, UC-Davis fired Pike, a few months after former UC-Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza stepped down because of the pepper spray incident.
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