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Police Disciplinary Appeals

Scholars and experts generally agree that rigorous enforcement of internal regulations within a police department promotes constitutional policing by deterring future misconduct and removing unit officers from the streets. In recent years, though, a troubling pattern has emerged. Because of internal appeals procedures, police departments must often rehire or significantly reduce disciplinary sanctions against officers who have engaged in serious misconduct.

By drawing on a national dataset of police union contracts, this Article analyzes the disciplinary appeals process utilized in a substantial cross section of large and midsized American police departments. It shows that the majority of these departments give police officers the ability to appeal disciplinary sanctions through multiple levels of appellate review. At the end of this process, many departments allow officers to appeal disciplinary sanctions to an arbitrator selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer. Most jurisdictions give these arbitrators expansive authority to reconsider factual and legal decisions related to the disciplinary matter. And police departments frequently ban members of the public from watching or participating in these appellate hearings.

While each of these appellate procedures may be individually defensible, they may theoretically combine in many police departments to create a formidable barrier to officer accountability.