January 28, 2011 12:32PM

From the Public‐​Employee‐​Tenure Files

Why are public-sector managers often reluctant to fire errant employees, even when the stakes of misbehavior are high? One reason is fear of outcomes like that in Aurora, CO, where a civil service commission has just ordered reinstatement and back pay for an officer terminated from the police force after he "allegedly kneed a female suspect in the face while she was handcuffed and on the ground," to quote the Denver Post, and then failed to report her injuries even though she was bleeding profusely. The police chief said he considered the incident an "egregious" use of excessive force, and the woman, whose orbital (eye-socket) bone was broken, won $85,000 in a settlement with the city.

That was not good enough for the civil service panel considering the officer's firing, which said excessive force had not been proved to its satisfaction. It did find that the officer had violated a number of department policies — he should have reported the woman's injuries, for example — but said termination was too severe a penalty; instead, it said, he should be docked 160 hours of pay and made to undergo training. The docking of pay seems to be of a somewhat notional variety, however, given that the commission ordered him awarded back pay for the salary he would have earned had he not been dismissed in June 2010 (the underlying incident took place in February 2009).

So there you have it. Municipal taxpayers get to pay both ways — to defend against allegations that there was excessive force, and that there wasn't. Public managers are sent the message that it's unsafe for them to manage. Aurora residents nervous about possible encounters with the local constabulary are given fresh reason to be nervous. Is it any wonder long-overdue reform of government-employee tenure keeps returning to the national agenda?