Commissioner needs flexibility in disciplining police officers

BOSTON POLICE commissioner Edward Davis, like many of his peers nationwide, stands accused by police unions of inconsistency when disciplining officers, leading to calls for additional guidelines. Given the range of potential abuses of a police officer’s position, and the subjective nature of any personnel action, some flexibility is warranted. More guidelines may be helpful — but not if they tie Davis’s hands in a one-size-fits-all roster of punishments.

Recent history suggests it’s easier for police commissioners to lower the crime rate than design a proportional discipline system. Employee discontent and the threat of liability lurk around every corner. No department has the perfect discipline system. But some, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, have done a better job than Boston in focusing on the need to retrain, rather than simply punish, officers who engage in unprofessional conduct.

Still, union officials would prefer a rigid matrix system that would require any officer who violates a rule to receive a specific punishment regardless of the the severity of the offense or the officer’s history. But such a system isn’t in the interest of public safety. A warning, for example, should be sufficient for an exemplary officer who commits a rare act of rudeness. But a suspension is best for a rude officer with a long history of citizen complaints.


Many departments, including the Denver police, have adopted a so-called flexible matrix system that assigns ranges of punishments to various violations and allows for the recognition of aggravating and mitigating factors. Davis says that Boston uses such an approach on an informal basis. But the department would be in a better position to defend itself against charges of inconsistency if it created a formal grid. Then, the commissioner should be able to explain why similar-seeming offenses draw different punishments. The police unions won’t relish the release of extensive details of an officer’s offense. But that’s the price for transparency and consistency.

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Punishment should also be swift. Davis is a long way from meeting his own goal of resolving discipline cases against officers within a 90-day period. It’s unfair to both the officer and the public to allow many months or even years to go by between a complaint and its resolution.

Ultimately, Boston should be looking for ways to change the behavior of offending officers through better supervision and training. And the department is in dire need of an early intervention system that alerts police brass about problem officers. But in the meantime, the department’s discipline policy should recognize the difference between an occasional error in judgment and a longstanding disregard of police procedures.