Flipping the Bird = Conduct Unbecoming an Officer
LL's story on the Metropolitan Police Department's troubles with internal discipline is on the cover of this week's dead-tree edition of Washington City Paper.
One of the topics explored is the random, arbitrary, and sometimes petty nature of police discipline. LL didn't have enough room in his story to fully unpack one anecdote, which involves the department trying to punish a cop because she gave a colleague the middle finger while quoting a line from The Breakfast Club, that illustrates this phenomenon almost perfectly.
The back story: Lt. Nicole Lindsey is one of the 18 police officers the department unsuccessfully tried to fire, after she'd already been fired and reinstated. According to a report from an administrative judge Lindsey was fired in 2003 for lying about a blood donation in order to get a few hours off work. Lindsey testified that she "was going through some medical issues" when she tried to obtain leave and was denied. So Lindsey said she'd donated blood and requested she be given four hours leave to recover, which was granted.
The problem wasn't that Lindsey hadn't given blood, it was that the blood had been drawn for "medical reasons" not as a donation. Lindsey was fired for making an untruthful statement. An arbitrator ruled that the city had violated a rule that the department must issue a written decision on her disciplinary case within 55 days after charging her with misconduct and ordered Lindsey reinstated. The city appealed the arbitrator's ruling with the Public Employee Relations Board but lost. Lindsey was reinstated near the end of 2007.
As recounted in LL's cover story, MPD tried to fire 18 officers, including Lindsey, after the news broke in March 2008 that several previously fired officers had been reinstated because the department had failed to adhere to the 55-day rule. The department charged Lindsey with "inefficiency," saying she couldn't fully perform her duties as a police officer because no prosecutor would put her on the witness stand.
As part of the disciplinary process, two MPD internal affairs investigators interviewed Lindsey in the summer of 2008, while Lindsey was on maternity leave after having a baby. The interview took place at the city-run Police and Fire Clinic, where Lindsey had a medical appointment. At the beginning of the interview, Lindsey got into an argument with one of investigators (who was a sergeant, and therefore had a lower rank than Lindsey) about who was whose superior officer. The investigator, Sgt. Charles Weeks, told Lindsey that for all things related to the investigation, Lindsey should consider Weeks her superior officer.
At this point, Weeks testified at a police trial board, Lindsey flipped Weeks and his partner the bird. She then asked him, "Do you want me to turn up the volume?" Lindsey testified that she gave Weeks the middle finger because she was trying to "lighten the mood" by joking around and quoting from The Breakfast Club, according to the report written by the administrative judge. (LL believes Lindsey misquoted the classic John Hughes movie about a group of high school misfits. The actual line, "Can you hear this? Want me to turn it up?" occurs during one of the many confrontations between the rough edged ne'er-do-well John Bender and the jockish Andrew Clark.) Lindsey also testified that she'd known Weeks for a long time and they shared mutual friends.
But the department did not take kindly to such behavior, charging Lindsey with "inefficiency" like the 17 other officers it was trying to fire and adding an a charge of "conduct unbecoming an officer" for giving Weeks the finger. The formal charge:
"In that on July 17, 2008, you brought discredit upon yourself and the Metropolitan Police Department when you displayed a vulgar gesture directed at Internal Affairs Agents during the course of an interview."
A police trial board found Lindsey guilty on both counts and she was fired. Like all other inefficiency cases, this one didn't stick. An administrative judge reversed the decision and Lindsey, who did not return a request for comment, is currently back on the force as a supervisor in MPD's 3rd District.
In his ruling, Administrative Judge Eric Robinson noted that at the trial board hearing the director of disciplinary review for the police department testified that "no MPD employee has been removed for service, within recent time, for use of profane language."
"I take note that, [Lindsey's] gesture and movie quote, while she was on maternity leave and heading to a medical appointment, should be considered for what it was—minor," Robinson wrote.
That certainly seems reasonable, unlike the the unbecoming charge leveled against Lindsey. If every foul-mouthed cop was punished for cussing a coworker, there probably wouldn't be many police left. Lindsey's case illustrates both the wide discretion MPD has in administering internal discipline and how precarious it can be for a cop who is on the wrong side of the higher-ups.
As Peter Moskos, the former Baltimore cop with a PhD from Harvard said in LL's cover story: “It’s the worst of both worlds, because they have all these rules, but then it comes down to whether they want to fuck you or not.”
Good thing he didn't say that while on the force. He might have gotten fired.
Illustration by Carey Jordan