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Employee Disciplinary Matrix: A Search for Fairness in the Disciplinary Process

nfortunately, perceived unfairness is an all too common condition in law enforcement agencies. Employee discipline is never an easy matter to deal with in any employment environment, and law enforcement agencies are no exception. In the field of law enforcement there are additional forces that tend to complicate both the procedural and substantive aspects of employee discipline. In particular, because of the unique powers that police hold in a democratic society, there is greater demand for accountability among police departments and individual officers. Actions and behaviors of officers often have life altering consequences for the public and unauthorized behaviors or actions can have dire legal consequences for officers and their agencies. Consequently, ensuring that police officers act in accordance with law, departmental policy, rules, and training is an indispensable element of effective police management.

Traditionally, law enforcement has been long on discipline and short on remediation. In more recent times, police organizations have adopted disciplinary procedures that are designed not simply to impose negative sanctions but to provide employees with the opportunity to correct inappropriate behavior and learn from mistakes. Consistent with this more redemptive approach to personnel management has come the notion of progressive discipline-a key component, as shall be seen, in the construction and use of a disciplinary matrix. Progressive discipline holds that, when punishment is warranted, it is most effective to mete it out in increasing levels of severity based on reoccurrences. Less serious forms of misconduct and those that are first offenses do not always deserve or require severe punitive actions. They can often be dealt with effectively by verbal reprimands or counseling, among other possible alternatives. In other words, the discipline must fit the misconduct, or be appropriate to the misdeed at hand. Progressive discipline, however, sometimes requires that employees receive different penalties for the same offense behavior because of different disciplinary histories.

In employment generally, and police work in particular, the notion of fairness in administration of discipline plays a key role. If employees believe that they are being dealt with fairly, they are more likely to be accepting of corrective actions and less likely to be alienated. In contrast, when discipline is viewed as unfair or unpredictable, employees often undermine the process and develop negative attitudes towards the organization. Unfair disciplinary processes (and those seen as unfair) support the development of a "code of silence" among employees and undermine the legitimacy of the disciplinary process.

The issue of fairness is comprised of at least two components of equal importance. The first of these is equality, which refers to consistency in the administration of discipline. Employees want to know that their punishment is no harsher than, and at least consistent with, the punishment of other employees who have committed the same type of misconduct. To be consistent, punishment for one person's act of misconduct must be the same or closely similar to the punishment given other persons who have committed the same or similar act. In other words, like penalties for like offenses in like circumstances. Equality also means that favoritism based on an employee's rank or position, race, gender, seniority or other characteristics does not play a part in determining appropriate discipline. Employee actions citing disparate treatment in disciplinary matters are often based on allegations that the police department's punishment was not in line with punishments given to other employees for the same or similar offense.

The second component of "fairness" is equity, meaning that underlying or contextual circumstances surrounding the misconduct or behavior need to be taken into account when deciding punishment. Mitigating circumstances may come into play. For example, in taking a prohibited action, the officer may have misunderstood the task or order that was given and acted inappropriately, the officer may have just learned of a death in the family and was not paying attention when engaged in the task at hand, or may have been confronted with highly unusual circumstances during the incident that warranted departure from established policy. On the other hand, determination of fair discipline must also take into account aggravating circumstances such as an officer's possible negative attitude toward the underlying incident, history of prior misconduct, prior attempts of the department to correct inappropriate behavior, or other factors.

Many if not most organizations generally, and police departments in particular, continue to find it difficult to successfully integrate the foregoing requirements into a cohesive disciplinary system. In larger departments in particular, it is difficult to achieve fairness of punishment when the authority for final disciplinary decisions is spread among a number of district, precinct, or division commanders who may not share the same views concerning appropriate punishment for the same offense. The perceived fairness of disciplinary actions may be further eroded when supervisory or command level personnel are not held to the same standards as their line counterparts. Aggravating or mitigating information important to the fair determination of discipline may not be shared between departmental assignments or units, informal discipline and remedial actions of supervisors may not be fully documented, and problem employees often may be transferred rather than effectively dealt with by their superiors.

Disciplinary Matrix
The problem of developing a fair system of disciplinary sanctions in policing is similar to the problem of ensuring a fair system of criminal sentencing in the courts. At bottom the issue revolves around the existence of discretion in the disciplinary decision. While discretion is necessary for fairness since latitude allows penalties to be fine-tuned to match behaviors and circumstances, it also allows unfairness. The same system that allows a supervisor to grant leniency in cases involving well intentioned but inexperienced officers can also allow supervisors to grant or withhold leniency based on officer sex, race, age, or other characteristics.

There are three basic ways to control discretion. One way to control discretion is to eliminate it. Mandatory sentencing laws or mandatory penalty policies that require persons found in violation to receive a pre-set punishment act to eliminate discretion. The problem here is that while mandatory penalties can work to improve equality, they almost always undercut equity in the disciplinary process. A second way to control discretion is by developing a series of "checks" so that decisions are reviewed. Appellate review of criminal sentences provides a check on judicial decisions; an appeals process in the disciplinary procedures can do the same. Checks on discretion have a number of problems including the fact that they extend the length of the disciplinary process and thus add to officer and supervisory anxiety, undermine any deterrent effects, and add layers of decision making (and cost) to the process. Disciplinary decisions in most agencies are reviewable today (in addition to any departmental appeals there are often civil service reviews and, in the end, officers can seek court review of disciplinary decisions). Checking discretion may ultimately achieve more fairness, but given the current controversies, existing mechanisms do not seem to prevent disputes. A final way to limit discretion is through developing guidelines for decision makers. Guidelines inform the decision maker about the purpose of the decision, what factors should be considered (and how), and often, what has been the outcome in other similar cases.

In an effort to respond to charges of arbitrary and capricious disciplinary actions, police departments have sought several types of solutions, one of which is the development of a table of disciplinary actions often referred to as a disciplinary matrix. Such matrices attempt to answer the problem of fairness between individual disciplinary actions by the use of predetermined ranges of disciplinary alternatives. These disciplinary alternatives may be correlated to specific acts or various acts may be aggregated into a class of misconduct based on their perceived severity.

A disciplinary matrix provides the decision maker with a guideline for the disciplinary decision.

Disciplinary matrices are similar to matrix sentencing guidelines used in criminal courts around the country. The term "matrix" refers to a table that allows the decision maker to consider at least two things at the same time. Most criminal sentences are based on both the seriousness of the crime and the extent of the offender's prior record. Both more serious crimes and longer or more serious criminal histories lead to more severe penalties. The table plots offense seriousness against prior record and provides a suggested sentence or range of sentence for each combination of seriousness and prior record.

The matrix is like the mileage charts sometimes found on road maps that tell the reader how far it is between destinations. In these charts the same listing of destinations (usually cities) is printed across the top and down the side of the page. To find the distance between cities, the reader locates the first city on the vertical list (down the side) and then reads across the chart until reaching the second city on the horizontal list (across the top). At this point, where the two destinations intersect, the distance between the two places is printed. For discipline, the decision maker finds the seriousness of the behavior on one dimension and then reads across the chart to find a second dimension (such as prior disciplinary record). At the point where these two factors intersect, the matrix provides a range of appropriate sanctions or even a specific suggested sanction.

Progressive discipline is integral to disciplinary matrices or tables. Such tables are generally divided into several columns representing disciplinary history (a first, second, third, or even fourth repeat offense) and several rows representing seriousness of the misbehavior. Penalties increase as either seriousness or disciplinary history increase. For disciplinary history each repeated offense category carries a harsher form of punishment. Generally, repeated misconduct does not have to be of the same type or class in order to constitute repeated misconduct. The department establishes a period of time (typically between one and two years) wherein misconduct qualifies as a repeated offense.

Generally, disciplinary matrices are used for the imposition of punitive action for acts of misconduct rather than behavioral problems. Behavioral problems are often dealt with through counseling, remedial training, mentoring, increased supervision or related approaches. However, depending on the nature of the misbehavior and the frequency of its recurrence, it may be subject to sanctions within the disciplinary matrix.

The matrix is intended to provide officers with a general idea of the upper and lower limits of punishment for acts of misconduct. The matrix also provides guidance to supervisors and managers. In so doing, proponents hold, it takes some of the guesswork out discipline, relieving officer apprehensions about potential penalties and reducing stress during the investigatory and deliberative stages of the disciplinary process. It is also purported to reduce individual concerns and potential grievances and appeals concerning disparate treatment. Strict adherence to a disciplinary matrix can limit the discretion of deciding officials and thereby level the playing field among supervisors who may have widely divergent ideas about discipline. Some also argue that a disciplinary matrix can enhance public information and police accountability in cases where a department's disciplinary table of penalties is made public.

While a disciplinary matrix may assist in bringing consistency to disciplinary decisions, some argue that it does not go far enough in many instances in ensuring the inclusion of mitigating or aggravating factors that could enhance or diminish the decision on severity of discipline. Still others argue that it removes important management discretion to impose punishment that is consistent with both mitigating and aggravating factors.

These are both legitimate concerns. A table of penalties, once accepted by management and line officers alike, could conceivably limit disciplinary discretion of supervisors and commanders. The question then becomes, by using a disciplinary matrix, would departments sacrifice a degree of equity for the sake of meeting demands for equality? The answer to this is both yes and no. Theoretically, to be fully consistent in all cases of punishment would exclude, in some cases, equity in discipline because it would have to overlook individual differences and circumstances in reliance on the formula of penalties. Theoretically, the specific act of misconduct would be the only issue at hand in making a disciplinary decision.

In reality, this is normally not the case for two reasons. First, equity and consistency do not have to be mutually exclusive, nor do they have to unacceptably compromise one another. Mitigating and aggravating factors can, and should, be incorporated into the disciplinary decision-making process when using a matrix. This has been done at the federal level, as we shall see, and to some degree in state and local disciplinary procedures. In fact, it would be problematic if provisions for considering extenuating circumstances were not included in a system that uses a disciplinary matrix given the fact that due process considerations allow employees to reply both orally and in writing to specific charges. Secondly, most tables of discipline do not identify discreet disciplinary penalties but rather a range of possible penalties, thus providing the deciding authority with necessary latitude in entertaining and incorporating extenuating circumstances into the disciplinary decision. An example of one page of a disciplinary matrix is included in the appendix.

The Federal Model
Many elements of the federal government, as well as the Metropolitan Washington Police Department, rely on a disciplinary matrix to guide decision making on appropriate discipline.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for example, provides guidance on the use of the matrix and the incorporation of mitigating and aggravating factors in disciplinary decisions.2 An overview of their system may provide a useful example for those departments considering the use of a disciplinary matrix.

In this case, supervisors are provided with the primary responsibility for initiating and recommending employee discipline, albeit with significant oversight by a senior commander and a personnel specialist from the Office of Labor Relations. In referencing the table of penalties, guidance provides that a particular penalty is not mandatory simply because it is listed in the table. In addition, the system provides that appropriate penalties for unlisted offenses may be derived by comparing the nature and seriousness of an offense to those listed in the table. Then, selection of an appropriate penalty should involve the balancing of the relevant factors in the individual case, consideration of the employee's previous disciplinary record, if any, and the recent offense giving rise to the disciplinary action.

The instructions further state:
In selecting the appropriate penalty from the table, a prior offense of any type for which formal disciplinary action was taken forms the basis for proposing the next higher sanction. For example, a first offense of insubordination for which an official reprimand is in the employee's official personnel folder, followed by a charge of absence without leave (AWOL), triggers the second offense identified in the table, i.e., a proposed five-day suspension if the AWOL charge was for eight hours or less or a proposed five-day suspension if the AWOL charge exceeded eight hours. Aggravating factors on which the supervisor intends to rely for imposition of a more stringent penalty, such as a history of discipline or the seriousness of the offense, should be addressed in the notice of proposed discipline, thereby giving the employee the opportunity to respond.

The federal system emphasizes that a matrix of penalties should not be employed in a mechanical fashion, but with practical realism. This approach was emphasized in the landmark case Douglas v. Veterans Administration,3 in which the Federal Merit System Protection Board, a federal adjudicatory agency, outlined 12 factors that must be considered by supervisors when recommending or deciding employee disciplinary action. While not all are pertinent to every case, they provide a broad-brush approach of the types of mitigating (or aggravating) factors that can and should be considered when employing an agency table of penalties. Many, if not most, of these have application in the disciplinary decision -making environment of state and local law enforcement:

  • The nature and seriousness of the offense, and its relation to the employee's duties, position, and responsibilities, including whether the offense was intentional or technical or inadvertent, or was committed maliciously or for gain, or was frequently repeated

  • The employee's job level and type of employment, including supervisory or fiduciary role, contacts with the public, and prominence of the position

  • The employee's disciplinary record

  • The employee's work record, including length of service, performance on the job, ability to get along with fellow workers, and dependability

  • The effect of the offense upon the employee's ability to perform at a satisfactory level and its effect upon supervisors' confidence in the employee's work ability to perform assigned duties

  • Consistency of the penalty with those imposed upon other employees for the same or similar offenses

  • Consistency of the penalty with any applicable agency table of penalties

  • The notoriety of the offense or its impact upon the reputation of the agency

  • The clarity with which the employee was on notice of any rules that were violated in committing the offense, or had been warned about the conduct in question

  • The potential for the employee's rehabilitation

  • Mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense such as unusual job tensions, personality problems, mental impairment, harassment, or bad faith, malice or provocation on the part of others involved in the matter

  • The adequacy and effectiveness of alternative sanctions to deter such conduct in the future by the employee or others

Importance of Documentation
It is essential for supervisors to document misconduct and both formal and informal discipline by using either a disciplinary matrix or other means to determine discipline. Without such documentation, it is not possible to ensure consistency between disciplinary decisions for the same employee or other employees who have been engaged in similar misconduct, nor is it possible to respond effectively to potential disciplinary appeals. Informal discipline such as verbal reprimands and counseling is no exception. These should be recorded in a supervisor's memorandum as a matter of record for performance review purposes and for future reference in cases of repeat misconduct. While informal discipline should not be placed in an employee's permanent personnel file and may not have an immediate impact on an officer's employment status or condition, repeated behavioral problems or an accumulation of minor infractions of policy or procedure should be taken into account when assessing an employee's performance or determining future penalties for misconduct. As such, this information must be available to other supervisors if necessary. Such information is normally retained at the unit level for a limited period of time and is expunged after a set period of time if the officer does not engage in additional misconduct.

When conducting any type of informal discipline or corrective action, supervisors should fully document the details of the circumstances of the incident(s) on which the counseling or reprimand is based. The specifics of the counseling or reprimand should also be documented together with such information as the date it took place, persons present such as another supervisor as witness, name of the person conducting the counseling and any statements made by the subject officer that have bearing on the officer's performance or behavior. The officer should be notified that the counseling session or reprimand will be documented but will be used only for purposes of recording the incident unless misconduct or inappropriate behavior is repeated. In some cases, the supervisor and officer may decide to enter into an agreement involving informal remedial training, review of departmental policy and procedures, or related actions to help ensure that similar problems of conduct or misbehavior can be avoided. In such cases, the terms of such an agreement should be clearly defined in the memorandum.

The employee should be given the opportunity to read and discuss the contents of the memorandum once completed, asked to sign and date it to verify that the employee has read it, and given a copy if he or she requests one. Where differences of opinion concerning the contents of the memorandum exist, they should be discussed and documented in an attachment. If the employee refuses to acknowledge the memorandum by signature, this fact should be recorded on the document and witnessed by another supervisor.

The need for documentation is equally if not more important in instances of formal disciplinary actions that have direct impact on the terms and conditions of employment. These procedures and due process safeguards involving such matters as Garrity and Laudermill are generally well documented in departmental policy and need not be reexamined here.4

Comprehensive documentation in the realm of employee discipline may also serve the police department in other ways. When reports of misconduct are lodged in a central repository, they can provide the core data elements for an early warning system, both for individual employees and the organization as a whole. In all organizations, compilation of employee disciplinary offenses and subsequent penalties will prove invaluable for comparative purposes in determining the consistency of disciplinary actions between individuals and, in larger departments, between divisions, assignments, and varied departmental components. In addition, summary and comparative data on the overall nature of employee misconduct in the department can point to potential problems in departmental policy, training, or supervision as well as possible solutions. For example, public complaints that center on unacceptable delivery of services rather than officer conduct (such as response time) may also prove essential in making alterations in personnel allocation or other organizational change.

When systematically organized in this manner, whether manually or by computer programming, individual officer conduct that may point to more serious problems can be flagged and addressed on a preemptive basis. Repeated complaints regarding firearms discharges, excessive force, damage to motor vehicles, loss of departmental property, and related information can suggest underlying problems with an officer that deserve proactive attention. Finally, this information is vital to monitoring and assessing the operation of the disciplinary matrix. A consistent pattern of disciplinary decisions that fall outside the range suggested in the matrix may be evidence that the matrix should be revised, or that supervisors require additional training in the use of the matrix.

What Is "Reasonable" Discipline?
Possibly most problematic in development of a disciplinary matrix is the selection of appropriate or reasonable penalties for individual acts or classes of misconduct. As noted earlier, a basic criterion for discipline is that the punishment must be in reasonable proportion to the rule or policy violation or other prohibited conduct. Obviously, a penalty that may be reasonable to one person may not be to another. There is no nationally recognized table of disciplines that can be used commonly among disciplinary schedules across states and localities. Many would argue that such a model would be impractical in light of differences in community and individual agency value systems, goals, and priorities. This is not to say that examples from similarly situated police departments cannot be effectively and usefully employed. In fact, if disciplinary actions are challenged as unreasonable, the availability of comparative information from other law enforcement agencies could be useful. But the final decision for an individual department must be made by that police department.

In order for a disciplinary system of this type to function with reasonable effectiveness, there must be some degree of buy in by employees. Where labor unions represent the employment interests of workers, this will unavoidably require union involvement. Even where collective bargaining entities are not at issue, management and line employees will need to reach a degree of agreement on acceptable disciplinary penalties and sanctions. This does not mean that management must seek concurrence on all decisions of disciplinary action but that there needs to be some reasonable accommodation of interests in arriving at a final table of disciplinary penalties.

Such a process of give-and-take can take considerable time and will undoubtedly test the patience of all involved. But if it can be accomplished, the exercise alone can be valuable. For example, in some cases where departments have engaged in this undertaking, it has been reported that employees take a stricter view toward adherence to certain principles of conduct and advocate harsher penalties than management for certain employee transgressions; thus, such negotiation can assist the department in defining or refining its core values and goals. For example, on close examination, employees may determine that police work requires, among all else, reliance on the integrity and truthfulness of officers. As such, employee conduct that undermines these basic tenets must be dealt with decisively and harshly. By the same token, departmental management may endorse more stringent penalties for failure of officers to adhere to policy in critical enforcement areas. For example, failure of officers to abide strictly to vehicular pursuit policy and procedures may be regarded as deserving strict enforcement and harsh penalties due to the department's involvement in a large number of crashes and injuries in such incidents. In this and related instances, a department can utilize the table of penalties to enforce and underline its commitment to specific priorities or goals.

Development of a table of penalties can be time consuming and laborious; however, the effort can be truncated somewhat by organizing acts of misconduct into conceptually similar classes with assigned sanctions on a collective basis. This approach has merit in that it is difficult to attempt to identify every discreet act of misconduct. And, failure to identify a specific act as impermissible could render any discipline in such a case as unreasonable based on the fact that employees were not informed in advance that it was prohibited. Identification of classes of prohibited actions combined with a defined list of mitigating and extenuating factors similar to those identified in Douglas under the federal model may be adequate to provide sufficient particularity to discipline based on the act of misconduct.

There is quite a bit of knowledge and experience with matrix sentencing guidelines that can ease the development of disciplinary matrices. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Based on the experience with sentencing guidelines, there are two basic models for matrix development: descriptive or prescriptive. A descriptive matrix suggests sanctions based on what has typically been done in similar cases in the past. If disciplinary data are available, an analysis is done to identify the factors associated with different sanctions. Almost always this analysis will reveal that the severity of punishments is linked to the seriousness of the misbehavior and the prior history of the employee. Based on this analysis, a matrix can be derived that reflects these factors. In this way, the matrix actually describes current practice. In this case, the application of the matrix does little to change how discipline is decided but does increase consistency. Alternatively, a prescriptive matrix can be developed by first determining what factors should be important and how they should relate. Then this determination of how discipline should work forms the basis of a matrix that prescribes penalties for future violations. In this case, the matrix discipline system may bear no relation to existing practice. The choice of developmental method depends on several factors including the availability of data, the capacity to conduct the analyses, the levels of satisfaction with current discipline practices, and the like. If the primary complaint about the current disciplinary process is procedural (concerns equality) and not substantive (concerns equity), a descriptive model seems to be indicated.

If a disciplinary matrix is adopted, regardless of the developmental model it is important to institute a system of recording disciplinary actions that includes collecting information about the relevant factors (such as offense seriousness, prior history, and sanction) so that the workings of the matrix system can be documented and evaluated. Periodic reviews should be conducted to look for areas where the system might be improved.

No matter how sanctions are determined in an employee disciplinary system, it is important to realize that the penalties are only part of the process. A matrix system can improve fairness in disciplinary decisions but the integrity of the total disciplinary processes depends on fairness in detecting, reporting, investigating, and documenting infractions. A disciplinary matrix is part of a total employee discipline process. ■

1Investigation of Employee Misconduct: Concepts and Issues Paper, IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, Virginia.
2 Department of Defense, Washington Headquarters Service, Memorandum for Supervisors and Managers: Disciplinary and Adverse Actions, March 1989.
3 Douglas v. Veterans Administration, 5 M.S.P.R. 280, 306 (1981)
4 See Investigation of Employee Misconduct, Model Policy and Concepts and Issues Paper, IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Virginia



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 10, October 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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