Did Chief Godbee Overreact in Suspending Officers?

11/28/2011 07:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

Last week several Detroit police officers from the Northeastern District's afternoon shift went home sick in the middle of their tour of duty. Its been reported that these officers were sick. It's also been reported that these officers went home sick because of their unhappiness with rumors of police layoffs and pay cuts due too the city's financial crisis. Immediately after this incident Chief of Police Ralph Godbee was quoted by media outlets saying that there would be an internal affairs investigation of this "concerted activity" as he called it. It was alleged that these officers acted in concert and planned in advance to walk off the job. Chief Godbee immediately suspended 17 officers for "striking," as he called it. He followed that with the release of a video addressing the officers on the matter of police layoff rumors. His reasoning for the suspensions was that those officers have violated a State statue that does not allow police officers to strike. In spite of the Chief's liberal interpretation of the statute, based on its wording, the officers should've never been suspended.

423.206 Public employee; conduct considered to be on strike; proceeding to determine violation of act; time; decision; review; applicability of subsection (2) to penalty imposed under MCL 423.202a.

Sec. 6.
(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, a public employee who, by concerted action with others and without the lawful approval of his or her superior, willfully absents himself or herself from his or her position, or abstains in whole or in part from the full, faithful and proper performance of his or her duties for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in employment conditions, compensation, or the rights, privileges, or obligations of employment, or a public employee employed by a public school employer who engages in an action described in this subsection for the purpose of protesting or responding to an act alleged or determined to be an unfair labor practice committed by the public school employer, shall be considered to be on strike.
(2) Before a public employer may discipline or discharge a public employee for engaging in a strike, the public employee, upon request, is entitled to a determination under this section as to whether he or she violated this act. The request shall be filed in writing, with the officer or body having power to remove or discipline the employee, within 10 days after regular compensation of the employee has ceased or other discipline has been imposed. If a request is filed, the officer or body, within 10 days after receipt of the request, shall commence a proceeding for the determination of whether the public employee has violated this act. The proceedings shall be held in accordance with the law and regulations appropriate to a proceeding to remove the public employee and shall be held without unnecessary delay. The decision of the officer or body shall be made within 10 days after the conclusion of the proceeding. If the employee involved is found to have violated this act and his or her employment is terminated or other discipline is imposed, the employee has the right of review to the circuit court having jurisdiction of the parties, within 30 days from the date of the decision, for a determination as to whether the decision is supported by competent, material, and substantial evidence on the whole record. This subsection does not apply to a penalty imposed under section 2a.

According to police department policy, all an officer has to do when an illness occurs is notify their supervisor. It's then up to the supervisor to determine if that officer should go see a physician. A sick officer can be ordered to a medical facility for treatment. The supervisor on duty at the Northeastern District granted permission for each one of those officers to go home and the above statue clearly says: without the lawful approval of his or her superior. These officers asked and were given the approval to go home sick. Whether it was "concerted activity" or not, and that can't be proven, the bottom line is these officer committed no crime, broke no laws; they took advantage of their contractual right and they protected themselves by seeking permission. Had they just walked away then the argument could be made that they undertook an illegal action. The officers were suspended with pay and sent home. So the result is there are 17 officers sitting on their living-room couch collecting a pay check when the city is not only in a financial crisis but violent crimes are up. It would've made far more sense for the Chief to show up to the Northeastern District on the night this occurred, give these officers a stern lecture and lets move on. This whole matter went from a mountain to a molehill. The officers' actions were less harmful than the reaction to their actions. Citizens were never in danger and the city was never placed under martial law. So now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, putting it back in is nearly impossible. The harm has been done and Godbee has placed the support from his troops in jeopardy. On May 27, 2011, the Detroit Free Press uncovered evidence left in the Detroit crime lab. Subsequently Chief Godbee stood before a microphone after the embarrassment over the closed evidence lab made the news and announced that someone would be held accountable. His words were clear, heads would roll. Seven months later and none of the executives who were responsible for securing the lab and its contents have been suspended or fired. Ultimately he took the blame for that incident and no one got suspended or fired.