Some call it paid vacation while others compare it to house arrest. But critics of the Baton Rouge Police Department’s paid administrative leave policy agree on the ironic nature of paying an officer to stay home while under investigation for possible workplace misconduct.
When two officers were caught sneaking home during their shifts last year, the department ordered them to keep doing the same thing for another month: stay home and collect their paychecks pending the outcome of their investigation.
Sgt. Jaime Strahan and Sgt. Patrick Martinez were placed on paid administrative leave starting in November while internal affairs investigators reviewed GPS data on their vehicles. Strahan later admitted that on several occasions she simply “took it to the house” and both officers were later disciplined.
Martinez and Strahan were among dozens of Baton Rouge police officers placed on paid administrative leave over the past two years — a practice that has become widespread among law enforcement agencies across the country and has recently received particular attention in Baton Rouge following the police shooting death of Alton Sterling in 2016.
Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake III remained on paid leave for almost two years while federal and state prosecutors investigated the Sterling case and both agencies ultimately declined to press charges. Together the two officers received more than $130,000 in taxpayer dollars during that time.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced last month his decision to fire Salamoni and suspend Lake for three days following the decision by the state Attorney General’s Office not to press charges. Having taken over leadership of the department in January, Paul criticized the length of the investigation and pledged to “do a better job expediting and prioritizing cases when someone is on leave.”
Experts point to unnecessarily long investigations, which can feed into the impression among members of the public that law enforcement officers receive special privileges not afforded to private sector employees.
“People sometimes think officers just get this sweet deal,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who previously served with the U.S. Department of Justice. “But those concerns are very often the symptoms of a deeper mistrust between communities and police departments. And repairing that mistrust is going to come in different ways — changing how police interact with people on the street and being timely and transparent in administering discipline.”
But others say they are giving officers due process until the investigation is complete.
“This is really a byproduct of procedures that are in place, just like in a criminal case: You’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, a nonprofit criminal justice watchdog group. “I have no problem with paying somebody while they’re being investigated.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Thirty-nine Baton Rouge police officers were placed on paid administrative leave between January 2016 and January 2018, according to payroll data provided by the department in response to a public records request. The officers received almost $400,000 between them during that time — the equivalent of about 11 department starting salaries.
At the start of 2018, six officers were on paid leave. The department employs about 650 officers.
Including Salamoni and Lake, the 39 officers spent on average 10 weeks at home and received about $9,000 while on paid leave. When Salamoni and Lake are removed from that calculation, the averages drop to about seven weeks and $6,500.
The Louisiana law enforcement officers Bill of Rights requires that all internal investigations are completed within 60 days, though they can be extended another 60 days or suspended pending criminal investigations.
Baton Rouge Police Department leadership found evidence that about half the 39 officers placed on leave had violated department policies, with two cases ending in terminations and at least 11 ending in suspensions without pay. Most suspensions without pay are between one and 20 days but can be up to 90 days, according to state civil service law. Officers are never required to pay back any of the money they receive while on leave, no matter what the outcome of their internal investigations.
The rest of the 39 officers — except a few who retired or resigned and two that are still under investigation — had not acted outside department policies, their supervisors concluded. Records show that none of the use of force investigations found policy violations, except for the one involving Salamoni.
According to department records, officers were most often placed on paid leave during investigations into use of force and conduct unbecoming an officer. Other possible policy violations on the list include command of temper, violation of laws and falsification of documents.
For example Michelle Patterson was placed on paid leave for about seven months and recently fired after she confiscated a marijuana cigarette from someone and issued them a misdemeanor summons, but later rewrote her report to remove any mention of the cigarette or the summons, according to department records.
Brad Bennett was suspended for 87 days following several months on paid leave in 2016 because investigators found he arrested someone on DUI, then had sex with the woman riding in the passenger seat after giving her a ride home.
And Jared Neyland spent about five months on paid leave and was suspended for one day after Livingston Parish sheriff’s deputies were called to his house in response to the officer fighting with his girlfriend. Neyland was arrested on domestic abuse battery but was never charged.
Chief Paul said the department policy is to automatically place an officer on paid administrative leave if that person is under criminal investigation or “engaged in a deadly incident.” Otherwise the chief can choose to place someone on administrative leave at his discretion. The department did not provide a copy of its paid leave policy in response to a public records request.
Paul said that when deciding whether to place an officer on paid administrative leave, he considers whether it would be “in the best interest of the department” — if having them performing law enforcement duties could endanger the officer or the public — and evaluates the specific circumstances of each case. Another option is assigning someone to desk duty, which, Paul said, he often does instead of sending them home. He can also take someone off paid administrative leave and bring them back to work at any time during an internal investigation.
Policies for both the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office and the Lafayette Police Department are about the same. And most others seem fairly similar though local civil service rules can vary from one department to the next.
New Orleans police officers are never placed on administrative leave but are given administrative reassignment when questions arise about department policy violations. Department spokesman Eric Melancon said that “no one is ‘paid to stay home’ while they are under investigation” but an officer could instead be suspended without pay in potentially “egregious” cases.
Experts said unpaid leave is rare at law enforcement agencies across the country. One of the reasons is that employees protected by civil service laws have “a property right in their job … and for the government to deny someone their interest in property, they would have to get due process,” according to Donovan Livaccari, an attorney specializing in law enforcement discipline cases and a former New Orleans police officer.
Paul also mentioned the potential for a “double jeopardy” situation because placing an officer on unpaid leave could be considered punishment, meaning they couldn’t then be disciplined again if allegations are sustained.
A 2008 study conducted at the National University in California considered the practice of placing officers on paid leave during shooting investigations and found that departments generally save money in the long run by avoiding unlawful termination suits.
Robb Moruzzi, a Baton Rouge police officer who serves as the department representative on the local civil service board, was himself placed on paid administrative leave almost 10 years ago while under investigation for his involvement in an off duty fight outside a Third Street bar. Moruzzi was fired following the investigation and later rehired after appealing his dismissal.
He firmly challenged the notion that paid leave is akin to paid vacation — particularly because while officers are on paid leave, they lose opportunities for working overtime and extra duty, which some use to boost their otherwise low base salaries. Many also spend their time at home worried about whether they’ll lose their job once the investigation concludes.
“It may seem like a picnic, but you’re trying to live off base salary and that’s almost impossible,” Moruzzi said. “It’s not good practice, but we rely on (working overtime and extra duty) to keep the lights on and buy the baby formula.”
Moruzzi said officers should be kept off the streets when their conduct is being questioned as a public safety precaution and to prevent possible negative encounters with residents. But, he said, police chiefs should minimize the time those officers are on leave to avoid stringing along both officers and taxpayers.
In response to the Alton Sterling shooting, state Rep. Ted James sponsored a bill last year that sought to cap paid administrative leave at 60 days for officers involved in fatal shootings. Officers later exonerated would be entitled to receive back pay. The proposal did not receive widespread support.
James said he isn’t concerned about placing officers on paid leave to honor their due process rights: “My issue is the length of time. They usually drag (the investigation) out way too long, especially in a murder case.”
Experts also agreed the real issue is long investigations.
“It really does become incumbent on the department to get through that process as quickly as possible,” said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor. “That’s where I saw huge problems in police departments of all sizes across the country.”
Lopez formerly helped lead U.S. Department of Justice investigations into law enforcement practices. She said when officers are under criminal investigation while an internal affairs investigation is also ongoing — as was the case with Salamoni and Lake — prosecutors should also make an effort to move the process along.
Lopez said bigger than the issue of paid administrative leave is the dynamic that can arise between police departments and the public when people get the impression officers are granted extended paid vacations after committing sometimes significant professional missteps.
“I think everybody loses when that dynamic takes hold,” she said. “To the public, it looks like such a boondoggle for officers — like everyone is in cahoots and letting them get away with it. And from the officer’s side, it feels like you have this guillotine hanging over your head and that’s incredibly stressful.”