TELL THE TRUTH!!
In the movie “Concussion”, all Will Smith wanted the NFL to do was “Tell the truth”. That sentiment would be good advice for public employees, especially law enforcement officers.
In In The Matter of Angel Reillo Camden County Police Department
, Docket No. A-1216-14T1 (App. Div. Aug. 4, 2016), the Appellate Division weighed in on the significance of a law enforcement officer being truthful or, in the negative, of being charged with untruthfulness.
Reillo and his partner found a man and a woman in a car in a park after dark. Although the park was closed, Reillo and his partner did not ask the driver for his credentials, did not issue a summons, and did not generate an incident report.
Within a few days, postings on Facebook alleged the man was a Camden City councilman and the woman was not his wife. The councilman denied the allegation and demanded the police department open an investigation, which it did.
The investigation determined that the allegation was false. The focus of the investigation then turned to how the councilman’s name was raised.
Initially when interviewed, Reillo stated he did not start the rumor, claiming it was started by other officers. In his third interview with Internal Affairs, Reillo first again denied any involvement in the rumor, and then after being confronted with statements by other officers, admitted he had been untruthful.
Based upon the investigation, the police department brought disciplinary proceedings for termination against Reillo. Termination was upheld at the departmental level and by an Administrative Law Judge, and then was appealed to the Appellate Division.
Before discussing the Appellate Division decision, it is worthwhile to review the Attorney General Law Enforcement Guidelines on this matter, as identified by the Administrative Law Judge:
Honesty is an essential job function for every police officer in New Jersey. Police officers who are not committed to the truth, who cannot convey facts and observations in an accurate and impartial manner and who credibility can be impeached in a court of law, cannot advance the interests of the State in criminal matters.
In rendering its decision, the Appellate Division recognized that the deference given to administrative agency decisions goes not only to the substantive decision, but extends to the penalty phase as well. The Appellate Division held:
We further reject Reillo’s argument that the penalty of removal was excessive and unwarranted. We cannot lose sight of Reillo’s status as a police officer, who “must present an image of personal integrity and dependability in order to have the respect of the public.” As ALJ Lavery rightly concluded, a police officer who has been found to have lied in an Internal Affairs investigation of which he was the target cannot serve as a credible witness in a criminal prosecution. Because, as the judge found, “testimony in court is a fundamental and frequent police duty,” Reillo’s untruthfulness has put his under a permanent disability in performing an essential function of his job. Because we cannot find the “punishment is so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all of the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness,” even in light of Reillo’s prior unblemished record, we affirm the penalty imposed by the Camden County Police Department and upheld by the Civil Service Commission.
The Appellate Division’s decision is multifaceted in its significance. First, the deferential standard applied by the Appellate Division to the substantive portion of administrative decisions will also be applied to penalty determinations.
Second, if a law enforcement officer is found guilty of untruthfulness, he or she will be unable to perform all of the essential functions of a law enforcement officer, leaving law enforcement agencies virtually no choice but to terminate the officer, and leaving administrative agencies and the courts no choice but to uphold the termination.
Finally, a finding of untruthfulness is so egregious that the principle of progressive discipline will not permit a lesser penalty. A penalty of termination is the only alternative.
The moral is no matter how severe the misconduct and how severe the potential disciplinary penalty, always tell the truth. A failure to provide the truth in a report, investigation, etc., will virtually always lead to termination, from which there is no reprieve.