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California

Steven Greenhut
Saving Bad Apples
In the Golden State, unions fight to protect even the worst of the worst.
7 November 2013

Most people agree that bad apples—whether misbehaving police officers, state workers, or school teachers—should be removed from public service or at least disciplined. Yet a California legislature that couldn’t be bothered to consider serious pension reform or address a spate of coming municipal bankruptcies passed three union-backed bills that protect the state’s worst “public servants.” Talk about priorities.

Governor Jerry Brown signed the most offensive of the three bills, SB 313, which passed both legislative houses by a combined vote of 108-5. Republicans were just as likely as Democrats to back a bill that would forbid police agencies from relying on so-called Brady lists to reassign, demote, or otherwise punish police officers and deputy sheriffs. In a 1963 case, Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court required prosecutors to disclose any evidence that could be favorable to the person accused of a crime. As a Senate analysis of SB 313 explains, “If the prosecutor is aware of misconduct, past or present, on the part of a police officer who may be called as a witness in a case, and that misconduct could discredit or ‘impeach’ the officer’s testimony, the prosecutor has an obligation to turn that evidence over to the defendant.”

As a result, district attorneys compile lists of officers who have been found to have lied under oath or falsified police reports, used excessive force, or who have been convicted of certain crimes. There’s good reason to keep these individuals off the witness stand, given that their lack of integrity can cost a prosecutor a conviction. And police agencies will sometimes discipline or reassign officers found to have behaved so poorly.

Progressive-minded police officials, such as Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, have publicly supported the use of Brady lists to help assure that the public can have “a high degree of trust” in their officers, as he explained to the Sacramento Bee. But police unions and their allies, such as the Peace Officers Research Association of California—a group that pays the legal-defense fees of officers accused of horrific behavior—despise the Brady lists. SB 313 expands the Peace Officers Bill Of Rights, which already makes it nearly impossible to discipline or fire law-enforcement officials for anything other than criminal convictions.

Brown consistently supports almost anything that comes from police unions. With the passage of SB 313, agencies won’t be able to deal with miscreants unless they independently prove the behavior that landed the officer on the list—and being on the list cannot be mentioned during disciplinary hearings. As a result, agencies won’t bother punishing dirty cops. “Cash-strapped local governments would be stuck with the officers and would not be able to take corrective action,” explained the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. “The governments could also be exposed to greater liability for knowingly keeping bad cops.” Legislators tripping over themselves to win police union support barely paused to consider the danger this poses to the public.

Though it passed on a much closer vote and was ultimately vetoed by Brown, AB 855 offers an even more telling example of how brazen the unions have become in trying to protect their worst members. The bill would have made it harder to fire public workers who go AWOL. As the Assembly analysis explained, the bill “Allows a state employee who is absent without leave (AWOL) to demonstrate he or she is able to resume job duties by submitting written verification from a licensed healthcare provider, as specified, and requires the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) to grant reinstatement if the appointing power invokes the ‘automatic resignation for state service’ provisions before the employee is absent without leave for five consecutive work days.” Sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, the bill even raised some hackles among labor-friendly Democrats. Its author justified AB 855 as a way to stop agencies from improperly firing AWOL workers. It’s hard to believe that this happens often, though, and the bill confirms the worst stereotypes about state employees. “This could encourage workers to go AWOL more frequently since they will be given a four-day ‘safe harbor’ for unexcused absences,” said Republican Assemblyman Curt Hagman of Chino Hills.

Larry Sand has documented the problems with the last of the three bills, AB 375, introduced to expedite the removal of child predators from the classroom after some grisly sex-abuse revelations involving a Los Angeles teacher. Last year, thanks to the California Teachers Association’s efforts, a tough reform measure was killed. The CTA then crafted this replacement measure, which unsurprisingly makes it even tougher to get rid of predator teachers. “AB 375 prohibits the use of evidence more than four years old and places a new, seven-month time limit on school districts to bring a hearing against an accused teacher,” wrote the alternative newspaper L.A. Weekly. “Today the average time it takes districts to hold a hearing is eight to 14 months, meaning many sex abuse cases could fall between the cracks under AB 375.”

Happily, Brown vetoed the bill, but reformers are back at square one—nearly two years after LAUSD paid $40,000 to Mark Berndt, the teacher who faces 23 charges of lewd conduct with his elementary school students (including allegations that he fed them his semen). When you can’t get rid of this kind of problem, you know it’s just about impossible to do anything.

My favorite past example of the union protection racket was when the legislature killed a bill that would have stripped pensions from public employees who committed felonies and were serving jail time. But these recent bills give that one a run for the money. The sad thing is that even when it comes to the rottenest apples—abusive cops, pedophile teachers, AWOL state workers—Californians have to fight to stop measures that would make things even worse. Never mind about reforms that might make them better.

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