A recent court decision has thrown into doubt hundreds of firings and suspensions of Cook County Sheriff’s officers, but Sheriff Thomas Dart told his 3,200 officers the ruling also may call into question whether hundreds more hirings and promotions were legitimate.
In a memo sent to officers this week, Dart claims the office is reviewing the status of all officers hired since 2005, a period when a court ruling found that disciplinary rulings handed out by his Merit Board were invalid because of technicalities about how board members were appointed.
That court decision could cost the county millions, as a wave of fired and suspended officers have challenged their dismissals and demanded back pay. At least one officer who had committed a firing offense returned to the job last week.
“Unfortunately, while the lawsuits are focused only on the Merit Board’s authority to terminate or impose serious discipline, they have necessarily called into question the validity of all employees certified from at least October, 2005, to the present, which includes the certifications of at least 1,700 correctional officers,” the memo states.
A lawyer representing a dozen sheriff’s officers who have challenged their firings or suspensions said the memo was an attempt by Dart to turn officers against colleagues who are trying to win back their jobs.
“The sheriff’s strategy is trying to vilify these former officers, so he thinks that he will get more support from the rank and file,” said Christopher Cooper, who represents a dozen officers who are challenging the validity of their firings. “Why incite the officers to think that judge’s got it wrong?”
An appeals court this year ruled that Merit Board decisions dating back more than a decade were void, because Dart and the county board had appointed board members to terms shorter than the six years required by state law. Legislation passed this fall, and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner last week, allows appointments to shorter terms and Dart re-appointed all seven members to full terms this week, said Cara Smith, Dart’s director of policy.
Not having certification from a legally constituted Merit Board would not impact the validity of arrests or other uses of police powers, Smith said, because officers still are trained and certified by the state’s Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. But it might mean the officers don’t have the right to disciplinary hearings in front of the Merit Board, and could be treated as at-will employees, Smith said.
“There has been a lot of focus on one aspect of what the Merit Board does in all this litigation,” Smith said. “That has been discipline. But it equally impacts hiring and promotion.”
Smith would not say if the board would have to re-certify every officer hired since 2005 or affirm promotions made during that span.
The sheriff’s read on the implications of the situation might be an attempt to bail the county out of potentially years of litigation, the payout of millions in back pay and the embarrassment of having to rehire officers who in some cases were found to have committed egregious misconduct. But it’s unlikely to send a flood of criminal defendants rushing to court to challenge arrests made by sheriff’s officers, said Daniel Coyne, an IIT-Kent Law School professor and criminal defense lawyer.
“It would really be a stretch to say that (Dart’s) problem with the Merit Board has anything to do with deputies’ power to arrest,” Coyne said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s formal defect in their hiring, since they’re still certified officers.”