Disciplinary Records Reveal Out-of-Control Employees at County Jail

A new law in Iowa allows the public to file open records requests for government employees' disciplinary records. This new form of transparency could very well lead to more accountability in government.

For now, though, it's just revealing how much tolerance parts of that government have had for unprofessional behavior.

The Des Moines Register sought disciplinary records and other information from the Polk County jail after an employee there sent the paper a letter. The letter detailed a bevy of problems at the state's largest jail, from sexual harassment to improper oversight of inmates on suicide watch. It also said employees were reprimanded for bringing up concerns.

The cases uncovered by the Register include an employee who got into a fight with a prisoner and didn't tell anyone, a sergeant in a sexual relationship with a subordinate, and an officer plotting with a co-worker to assault a prisoner. The jail also paid out at least two settlements, including $10,000 to a former inmate who was arrested for drunk driving in 2014 but had actually suffered a stroke and bleeding in the brain.

This year at least eight of the jail's 300 employees were criminally charged, demoted, fired, or forced to resign. Over the same period, the state ombudsman has received 84 complaints leading to 32 investigations.

Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarthy, who runs the jail, claimed to the Register that those numbers aren't so different from previous years. He also insisted that employees were not being reprimanded for raising concerns, and that they can always bring problems directly to him, to their union, or to the state ombudsman.

But he did endorse the new law. Not because he hopes transparency can lead to reform, but because he thinks it will allay the concerns of public employees themselves. When he worked for the Des Moines police's internal affairs division, he told the Register, employees often believed their co-workers were getting a "raw deal." The new law, McCarthy argued, will allay a lot of those concerns by providing specific reasons why employees were disciplined.

McCarthy also defended the jail's lengthy disciplinary process, which takes a long time because of union contract provisions, a state law enforcement officers' bill of rights, and other civil service protections. Employees, he argued, deserve due process.

Public employees certainly deserve due process when they are accused of an actual crime and are going through the justice system. But due process is supposed to protect people from government abuse, not protect government abusers' jobs. The internal disciplinary measures at a jail need to be swift and severe if an institutional culture that protects and perpetuates misconduct is to be changed.

Allowing law enforcement employees to remain on the job while they're being criminally investigated ought to be unconscionable. Instead it is often encouraged.

The Register, for example, discusses a sheriff's detective, John Negrete, who was arrested in September, just before the newspaper received the whistleblowing letter. Negrete was charged with assaulting a man at a local bar "without justification," but he was allowed to remain on the job. Negrete was also previously convicted of domestic abuse after he threatened to kill his ex-wife. McCarthy justified this to the Register by noting that Negrete denied the allegations.

The transparency offered by Iowa's new law is a good start—it makes it more difficult for government agencies to hide their complicity in misconduct. But changing things substantively will require higher standards for those paid to protect the public.