One of the areas of my law practice that has been exceptionally busy over the past few years has been firefighter discipline. Many departments are experiencing unprecedented disciplinary issues – and while we can debate the various factors that are contributing to the increase – the more important question is what do we do about it?
Somehow we missed this story back in September, but the LAFD issued a report on its disciplinary struggles with a focus on the need for a new disciplinary philosophy.
The report details the recent struggles the department has had, the problems it is experiencing with the current process, the fact that the process remains a source of contention between the union and the administration, and the fact that the current process is viewed by firefighters, union officials and chiefs alike as punitive as opposed to being focused on changing behavior.
The report continues with remarkable honestly and bluntness: In the majority of LAFD sustained complaints … the LAFD has no intent to remove the member from service. Instead, the LAFD seeks to change the member’s behavior through the means available to it. Unfortunately, with punitive action as its only option, the currently disciplinary process and resulting discipline (after a prolonged investigation and adjudication) often leaves the member bitter about the process, without being given tools or training which might help them avoid a recurrence.
The report also notes the difficulty of resolving interpersonal relationship conflicts between members when the only solution that management has at hand is punitive (ie. to discipline one member or the other, or both).
The Professional Standards Division “believes that a focus on “modifying behavior” through corrective action and training is an appropriate goal for the LAFD’s discipline process and introduces this philosophical shift with a brief outline of existing strategies for consideration.”
The report recommends consideration of a number of alternative dispute resolution options, including:
- Predisposition settlement agreements
- Education based discipline
- Conditional official reprimands
- Mediation, and
- Early intervention programs
The report goes on to briefly explain each of these options, and concludes that the LAFD would benefit greatly from this change in philosophy.
The report was prepared by LAFDs Professional Standards Division, carries the signature of Fire Chief Brian Cummings, and was submitted to the Board of Fire Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles on September 24, 2012.
Here is a copy of the report. lafdlafdreport186478912_09252012
The report echos a number of important points that modern police and fire discipline authorities have been advocating for decades, most importantly: that the purpose of discipline is to change behavior. All too often, discipline becomes solely focused on punishment – leading investigators to focus on how to “get” an accused firefighter.
When punishment becomes the goal of discipline, the disciplinary system becomes the subject of scorn and discontent among firefighters. This can cause officers to refuse to use the process, and lead them to look the other way at misconduct. Ignoring misconduct in turn creates the potential for even more misconduct to occur as boundaries between right and wrong, acceptable and not acceptable conduct becomes blurred.
The new discipline philosophy is often associated with the term “professional standards” as opposed to the more traditional term “internal affairs”. In LAFD’s case, it appears they adopted the professional standards name at some point in the past without truly adopting the professional standards philosophy. Be that as it may – it would appear that changes are on the horizon.
I applaud Chief Cummings for having the vision and the courage to advocate these changes. We will be discussing these very disciplinary philosophy issues later this month in Las Vegas during the 5 Day Internal Affairs program (part of PATC’s Western States Conference), and again next month on Hilton Head Island for Fire Department Administrative Investigations and Enforcing Discipline… (2 day program).