Blue Line

Witch-hunt or warranted?

October 12, 2012  By

1395 words – MR

Witch-hunt or warranted?
Loosely applied or ignored HR and investigative policies erode organizational credibility

by Mark Giles

One of the most stressful experiences for police officers and employees, generally, is being subject to an internal investigation – especially those administrative in nature where the accused doesn’t have the same protections accorded to those charged criminally. For police agencies and other organizations, these in-house probes can be extremely sensitive to conduct, while challenging professional standards and human resources personnel to find a balance between the rights of the complainant and the accused.

Like most actions in today’s complicated police and business worlds, this is where law and policy come into play – laying out “jurisdiction” and investigative process to be followed. How this is accomplished is often an indicator of whether these in-house probes are legitimate and, therefore, warranted or politically motivated – what some refer to as a “witch-hunt”.

Most police acts, codes of conduct and other workplace policies are legitimate and put in place for good reason. Challenges arise when these policies are applied with too much zeal, or ignored outright if they hinder progress towards meeting internal or public expectations, or a pre-determined outcome.

A recent case with the South Simcoe Police Service in Ontario may be an example of both – a situation that may also have contributed to the chief’s retirement in 2011. After what appeared to be excessive zeal in the pursuit and discipline of a police officer, and ignoring an established and agreed-upon process in eventually firing him, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) found the chief guilty of misconduct. The findings suggest this investigation and discipline went too far and without proper process. Not only had the chief failed to convene a hearing before firing the officer, but the lead OCPC investigator – a retired police superintendent – referred to the internal investigation of the officer as full of bias and intimidation.

This raises troubling questions regarding fair treatment and whether the agency was using the tools and resources at its disposal as weapons, rather than in legitimate support of a warranted investigation and discipline.

A recently well-publicized case of email snooping with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) shows that even the best police agencies can make mistakes. Tapping into an officer’s personal email account to acquire evidence led to a privacy complaint and a finding by the adjudicator that this was “exceptionally invasive” and “patently unreasonable in the circumstances.”

“What might be OK in finding online sexual predators is not OK in an internal disciplinary matter,” said Peter Marsden, president of CUPE Local 38, noting his concerns with using criminal investigative methods in reviewing the behaviour of employees.

To its credit, the CPS not only reinstated the officer, but also quickly apologized. Still, one has to wonder how the questionable actions of an IT manager led to the firing of a police officer. Where were the checks and balances on the use of police investigative resources?

{No monopoly for police agencies}

There are too many cases where investigations cross the line – or should sometimes never have been started – with police agencies and other organizations going overboard in using staff and law enforcement resources. And police agencies don’t have a monopoly on these witch-hunts – other agencies also appear to be sometimes making up the rules as they go along.

After a federal probe was closed in February, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced in June that it had evidence cyclist Lance Armstrong had doped and would waive its own eight-year statute of limitations to investigate and prosecute him. USADA is currently empowered to investigate allegations of drug use from 2004 onwards, but decided to operate outside that regulation in Armstrong’s case.

“If Armstrong had come in and been truthful, then the evidence might have been that the statute of limitations should apply,” Travis Tygart, USADA’s chief executive, told USA Today.

Unhappy with the USADA’s approach, Armstrong called the investigation an ”unconstitutional witch-hunt” and a judge seemed to agree, although he apparently didn’t feel it was his role to call it off.

”USADA’s conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives,” such as politics or publicity, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks wrote in his opinion.

In the Armstrong case, the USADA not only ignored its own statute of limitations, but after apparently saying it had 10 former teammates ready to testify against him, refused to disclose who they are or specifically what they would say (other than suggesting the possibility of two former top-level cyclists, both of whom have admitted to doping offences).

If police and federal agencies can ignore or loosely apply the rules for disciplinary matters, the situation has become extremely slippery with other public and private-sector employers and the growing prevalence of workplace-respect policies. The problem is not with their intent, which is usually sound, but rather the lack of safeguards, such as those in place for criminal cases, and the sometimes overzealous use of an administrative tool as a weapon against employees.

I recently found myself in this situation. First, the human resources department would not even provide the complaint details – a clear violation of its own policy. After keeping me in the dark for several weeks, they then contracted a retired deputy chief of a major Ontario police agency to investigate what turned out to be very minor issues.

The retired deputy quickly saw through the motives behind the complaints and told me so, indicating he felt it could be resolved with a quick chat. The HR department, however, decided his investigation wasn’t valid and, four months later, conducted another one. As expected, the issues could have been resolved almost immediately – months earlier – and included asking that I consider removing an “offensive” photo of me and a former police supervisor making an arrest, which was displayed in the corner of my office.

{Corporate reputation}

There seems to be a trend towards taking things too far, while abusing process, with in-house investigations ranging from minor employee interactions to more serious issues potentially resulting in discipline or dismissal. With more acts, codes of conduct and workplace-respect polices than ever, internal or politically motivated investigations are happening far too frequently – sometimes ignoring the rules, and using methods and resources far beyond those called for and what is appropriate in the circumstances.

Mistakes happen, and apologies go a long way towards mending hurt feelings and reputations, but the fact that investigations sometimes go as far as they do can lead to other negative outcomes. When an investigation or disciplinary action has gone too far, organizations need to quickly address the issue and take responsibly – as the CPS did earlier this year. Otherwise, the public relations impact can quickly harm corporate reputations, especially with the extensive reach of broadcast and social media today.

A Florida employer learned this lesson in early July after firing a lifeguard for going to the aid of a swimmer outside his assigned area. The story was quickly picked up nationally and internationally, with the lifeguard using media to send out his message without delay.

“If I can see someone and I have the ability to help them, I’m going to go help them,” said Tomas Lopez, a lifeguard at a beach in Broward County. “I’m not going to worry about jurisdiction or any other nonsense like that.”

Lopez was offered his job back a couple of days later, during an interview on CNN, when a humble employer tried to right the wrong done by an undoubtedly overzealous manager. Lopez politely declined the offer, saying he didn’t have it in him to return, which perhaps illustrates the bad will these situations create.

Sadly, however, some employers either don’t get it or choose not to – perhaps lacking the humility to admit they’re wrong or because they have a pre-determined agenda. Awareness of this problem needs to be raised, so that more scrutiny is given to ensuring internal investigations and disciplinary actions are warranted. In doing so, organizational credibility will be maintained, and police officers and civilian employees will have greater confidence in the internal investigative process and its outcomes.

Mark Giles is Blue Line’s correspondent for public and media relations. The opinions expressed are his own.

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