Reinstatement Of Officer Does Not Violate Public Policy

Juma Jones is a police officer with the Town of East Hartford, Connecticut. While on the job, Jones accessed a police data system known as “COLLECT” on a number of occasions in violation of department policy. On one occasion, Jones used the system to obtain the address of a former girlfriend. He went to that person’s home uninvited and was arrested for criminal trespass and breach of the peace.

After an internal affairs investigation, it was determined that Jones accessed the system and looked up information for five different persons, doing so in all cases for personal reasons. The investigation found that when Jones entered the reason for the inquiry into the system he described his purpose as “training,” which was not true.

The City fired Jones, but continued its investigation. When the investigation concluded that Jones had repeatedly used the COLLECT system to access criminal information about his own personal acquaintances, Jones was charged for approximately 21 counts of computer crimes in violation of a Connecticut statute. He was ultimately granted “accelerated rehabilitation” which resulted in a dismissal of the criminal charges.

In the meantime, an arbitration panel determined that the Town did not establish just cause to terminate Jones, and that it should have imposed the lesser penalty of a suspension without pay. The Arbitration Panel found that the Town’s rules were not applied evenhandedly to Jones because lesser penalties had been imposed for similar violations by prior employees and that the severity of the punishment did not equal the violations committed. The panel compared Jones’ violations to the violations of two police dispatchers who had received one-week suspensions for improper use of the COLLECT system, violations the Panel believed were “significantly worse” than Jones’ offense.

The Town challenged the Panel’s decision, arguing that the decision to reinstate Jones violated public policy. A court rejected the Town’s challenge.

The Court ruled that “public policy” challenges to arbitration decisions require a two-part analysis: (1) Whether the arbitration award implicated any explicit, well-defined, and dominant public policy, and (2) whether the order of reinstatement violated that policy. The Court found that the Town easily satisfied the first of the tests, holding that “the reasons for the restrictions with respect to the access and use of the COLLECT system are obvious. A police officer’s access to the COLLECT system entails a unique responsibility in that he/she is being trusted with an extensive amount of sensitive, often confidential, information for the limited purpose of his law enforcement duties. For an officer to exploit that responsibility is a violation of the public trust, and as such is a violation of public policy.”

Where the Town’s case faltered, the Court concluded, was whether the public policy at issue compelled the sanction of discharge, and only that sanction. The Court found that “a violation of the public policy at issue does not require a particular disciplinary consequence. Specifically, it does not mandate termination. The Court further finds that public safety is implicated as is public trust. With respect to the egregiousness of the offense, the Court finds that there was actual harm to some of the people whose information Jones accessed. They include his former girlfriend, as aforementioned, as well as another person who was related or connected to her. As to all of the persons whose information he accessed, their right to privacy was violated. Accordingly, the Court finds that the offense was egregious.

“However, the arbitration decision indicates that Jones was a police officer for approximately nine years prior to the incident in question. There is no notation as to any negative history. While there are a number of incidents of the same behavior, some were discovered subsequent to the date of his initial suspension. As such, the Court is not able to find recidivism, and neither is it able to find that recidivism is obvious from a review of the record. The record does not support a finding of incorrigibility, nor does it support a finding that the grievant is not amenable to discipline, especially in light of the severity of the penalty imposed and its likely deterrent effect.”

Town of East Hartford v. East Hartford Police Officers’ Association, 2016 WL 1265957 (Conn. Super. 2016).