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Punished, and paid

When the LAPD disciplines an officer with suspension, the police union replaces any lost wages.

May 22, 2008

So let's get this straight. A Los Angeles police officer does something so bad that he or she is suspended without pay. But the officer gets paid anyway. The punishment comes down to this: The check comes from the Police Protective League instead of the LAPD, and the officer gets what amounts to a few days of paid vacation. This is discipline?

Praise is due Police Commission member Anthony Pacheco for raising the issue Tuesday. The commission ought to take a look at how the union's practice of offering suspension insurance to its members affects the department's discipline system. The surprising thing is that, for seven years now, officers supposedly suspended without pay have been paid, with no one so much as raising an eyebrow.

Come to think of it, this whole thing has a familiar ring to it. It's a little like a City Council member or other elected official or candidate breaking campaign laws by "mistakenly" accepting contributions in excess of legal limits. The City Ethics Commission might slap a stiff fine on the politician -- who will pay it off with even more money raised from donors.

The union argues that its payments simply ensure that an officer's family doesn't suffer when the breadwinner is punished for misconduct. It's not fair, they assert, to take food out of the mouths of innocent kids just because their parents did something wrong. That's a terrific argument against ever punishing anyone anywhere -- and a particularly juicy one from a union whose members lock people up.

The union's insurance policy isn't workers' comp. It doesn't pay off when the member has to skip work because of illness or injury. It's nothing like a lawyer's malpractice insurance, which compensates the victimized client, not the attorney who loses work because of professional misconduct.

Where the union may have a point is in the wide variety of small offenses that can result in suspension without pay. Lose your gun? Maybe even suspension isn't enough. But temporarily misplace the keys to your patrol car? Certainly some discipline is in order -- discipline stiff enough to make sure you never do it again -- but suspension without pay for several days might be a bit much. Getting docked five days for failing to notify a supervisor of a vacation, as an officer was last month, is doubly nonsensical when it simply results in more paid time off.

The LAPD is overhauling its discipline system to make sure suspension applies to appropriate violations. In the meantime, there is probably little the department or the commission can do about the union's troubling insurance program, other than keeping it in mind when meting out discipline.

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