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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Police Civil Service Protections

One of the council majority's gravest mistakes of the past year, in my opinion, was the firing of Deputy Police Chief John Banick. This action not only displays a disregard for process, it constitutes an attack on the institutional checks-and-balances of city government.

State law grants Police Civil Service Commissions authority over the hiring, promotion, discipline, and termination of police department employees. While the city council sets the budget and organization of the department, it is prevented from making decisions about which specific individuals are promoted, demoted, hired, or fired.

The obvious purpose of this is to insulate law enforcement from political pressures. Imagine a city where every police officer knew his job was directly subject to the city council. In most cases, people would do the right thing and this wouldn't matter. But in some cases, a police officer might feel pressured not to enforce the law in one situation (say, not to arrest a friend or relative of a council member), or to overstep his authority in another (perhaps to harass an opponent of the council majority). The state has wisely defined the role of Police Civil Service Commissions to assure citizens that the police will enforce the law equally on all.

The current Maplewood regime has decided they stand above that law. In their view, as argued by their attorneys, the council's authority to manage the city's budget and organization trumps the PCSC. There was only one position in the department with the deputy chief's pay grade. Thus, the city said that their reorganization meant that he in specific had to be terminated, and the PCSC was irrelevant.

Why would they want to remove this specific officer? I attended a court hearing in January about this case. At the hearing, Banick's attorney argued that the firing was retaliatory. Among other things, Banick had been assigned to conduct the background check on the city manager, Mr. Copeland, who was nominated by the mayor and approved by the council majority. This background check raised questions about Mr. Copeland's suitability for his job, and thus embarassed the council majority and Mr. Copeland. (Some of that report is in the public record, and can be found at Maplewood Voices.) If what Banick's lawsuit alleges is true, this is exactly the kind of situation that the PCSC was created to prevent — retaliation against a police officer for doing his job, when the results were not what the current political regime wants.

The president of the Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police regards this situation as so serious that he wrote to the Maplewood Police Civil Service Commision, saying his organization is "committed to expending vast resources in support of his case at the state and national level should that become necessary." If this precedent allows city politicians to circumvent a PCSC and fire specific officers by means of budgets and reorganizations, it is a threat to police officers everywhere who are committed to applying the law with an even hand.

The judge at the hearing in January observed that, regardless of whether it was retaliatory, it seemed obvious that Banick termination was improper, because it did not respect the process for handling police personnel matters set down by law. (Indeed, since then the PCSC met and ordered the city to reinstate Banick in the department at a lower rank.) This gives me hope that common sense will prevail, the council majority's ill-considered action will be overturned in court, and the role of the Police Civil Service Commission will be reaffirmed.

Still, that leaves us with a council majority that took this path, in spite of warnings; defended their action; and remains defiant even today, as far as I can tell, refusing to acknowledge the PCSC's authority. I don't know if they'll have the sense to settle the matter rather than fighting in court to the bitter end. What I do know is that we need a new council majority with the common sense to respect the law, understand the limits of their own power, and not lead our city down a path like this in the first place.

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