In this, the #MeToo era, people who can’t keep their wandering hands or inappropriate remarks to themselves are increasingly finding themselves out of a job.
But not if you’re a Boston cop with access to the gift that keeps on giving: binding arbitration.
Consider the case of Officer Helen Bucelewicz, who was at one time — even according to her own lawyer — the quintessential touchy-feely cop.
Bucelewicz joined the force in 2011 and in 2014 was assigned to District 18 in Hyde Park, where she began engaging in behavior that might be understandable for your octogenarian great-uncle, but not a police officer.
The station’s secretary was especially disturbed by Bucelewicz’s behavior, complaining that her habit of calling everyone honey or sweetie or cutie and blowing kisses at them was unprofessional. Worse, she claimed, Bucelewicz was always touching people, on the arm, the shoulder, the leg, while talking to them.
Bucelewicz “sometimes lightly slapped people on the buttock to convey a sentiment like ‘atta boy’ or as she described it, a ‘Tom Brady, good job’ gesture,” according to the department’s disciplinary findings.
One veteran officer told investigators that she didn’t find Bucelewicz’s behavior “sexually offensive” but considered it “disrespectful to her hard-earned status as a police officer.” Bucelewicz apologized to that officer and, except for one slip, stopped calling her those names.
But the station secretary leveled far more serious allegations, saying she believed Bucelewicz “had a sexual interest in her and was ‘targeting’ her.” She claimed Bucelewicz touched her buttocks on three occasions, and that Bucelewicz sexually assaulted her by grabbing her groin area.
In 2015, after a hearing officer sustained 11 of 15 charges of violating departmental rules, including conduct unbecoming an officer, creating a hostile work environment, and indecent assault and battery, Police Commissioner Bill Evans fired Bucelewicz for engaging in what he called “a pattern of inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”
Bucelewicz and her union, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, appealed to an arbitrator, Michael Ryan, who acknowledged that Bucelewicz harassed two co-workers and engaged in inappropriate conduct, but ordered her reinstated, saying a reprimand would suffice.
Needless to say, the police commissioner was none too pleased. Last March, the department appealed Ryan’s ruling in Suffolk Superior Court, where Judge Douglas Wilkins backed the arbitrator.
“The court’s authority is very narrow,” Wilkins wrote, rejecting the department’s claim that Bucelewicz engaged in “felonious conduct.” He said “unwanted touching is not enough to establish” a finding of indecent assault.
Wilkins also agreed with Ryan that the department failed to show that Bucelewicz created a hostile work environment.
Bucelewicz’s lawyer, Alan Shapiro, told me that nothing Bucelewicz did was malicious, that she didn’t think what she was doing was wrong, and that none of her supervisors had told her to knock it off. While acknowledging that Bucelewicz now realizes she acted inappropriately and learned her lesson, Shapiro insists Evans overreacted.
“Helen was a touchy-feely person,” Shapiro said. “She learned that the way you act in your personal life is not how you behave in your professional life.”
Like others charged with maintaining respectful workplaces in a new era when employees increasingly and rightfully demand it, Billy Evans is frustrated by the unrealistic gap between what his responsibility requires and what the law lets him do. He says the legal process often obscures basic truths. When it comes to workplace wrongdoing, Evans subscribes to the Justice Potter Stewart standard: He knows it when he sees it, and what he saw in Bucelewicz’s case left him believing she should not be a police officer.
“It’s never an easy decision to terminate an employee,” Evans told me. “It’s only done after an exhaustive internal investigation and the conduct of the employee warrants it. It’s frustrating when that decision gets overturned by an arbitrator who may not consider all the facts that I take into account.”
Evans is considering whether to have his lawyers launch one final appeal, to the Supreme Judicial Court.
Bucelewicz remains off the job and in limbo. But whatever she’s paying in union dues, it’s a bargain.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org