The question of whether or not the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967) is still relevant to law enforcement administrative investigations is a legitimate one. Given the recent changes in the “attitudes of prosecutors and community member since the George Floyd incident in 2020,” this is question that warrants further discussion. The basic Garrity Rights that were established as a result of this U.S. Supreme Court ruling has resulted in a multitude of states enacting a law enforcement officers bill of rights and procedural guarantees that provide law enforcement officers with transactional immunity when they are compelled to give statements in administrative investigations.
In todays complex environment public officials, and more specifically, law enforcement officers are in the spotlight and under extreme scrutiny for their collective successes and failures. Advancements in technology, media and how consumers interact, absorb, and utilize it, have created a polarized environment that has put unbelievable pressure on decision makers to take actions sooner than later in administrative investigations, often times at the expense of affording law enforcement officers due process, procedural guarantees codified in laws, policy and procedures, and labor contracts.
Which brings us to the question at hand, has the court established Garrity Rights become irrelevant in law enforcement administrative investigations? This is a complex question, as there are no databases or other records that specifically track this data on a state or national level.
According to an NBC News article referencing the Bowling Green University Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database in 2021 a record 21 police officers in the United States were charged with murder or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty shooting.
Additionally, there are multiple cases of officers being denied due process and charged with crimes related to the discharge of their official duties since the George Floyd incident that have denied them due process before any type of proper administrative investigation took place. The Rashad Brooks incident in Atlanta, GA on June 06, 2020, resulted in Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rofles being fired the next day after the incident took place before being reinstated by the Civil Service Board some time later. The Civil Service Board stated:
“Due to the City’s failure to comply with several provisions of the Code and the information received during witnesses’ testimony, the Board concludes the Appellant was not afforded his right to due process. Therefore, the Board GRANTS the Appeal of Garrett Rolfe and revokes his dismissal as an employee of the APD.”
This is just one example of many in an emerging trend where political leaders and those under their prowess are not affording law enforcement officers due process in administrative investigations before taking adverse action.
The argument can be made that if this trend were to continue and expand to other types of incidents, not just officer involved shootings, that the legal landscape would begin to adapt and officers would be advised by their union reps, attorneys, etc. to invoke their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to give a statement because it would be more likely that these types of incidents will result in criminal charges being filed against the officer. Officers would rather be charged administratively with insubordination for refusing to answer the questions than provide a statement that could be used against them in a criminal matter, regardless of what purported protections such a statement may be afforded under Garrity Rights.
So, what can we conclude from all of this? Has due process and the Garrity Rights afforded to law enforcement officers who are the subject of an administrative investigation become irrelevant? For now, the answer is no, that there are legal precedents and case law that will ensure that law enforcement officers are afforded due process and given certain procedural guarantees. Garrity Rights are still relevant and allow officers protection against self-incrimination while also allowing government employers to conduct timely investigations into potential misconduct. However, if the trends mentioned above continues and due process and procedural guarantees of police officers are eroded as a result of politics and social pressures, then it may well result in Garrity Rights becoming less prevalent or irrelevant altogether in more serious administrative investigations. It will be up to the courts, who have established the legal principle of Garrity Rights, and the courage of the decision makers to ensure that the everyone is afforded due process under the law, that the rules and policies for administrative investigations are followed, and that these are not forgone at the expense of external political and social pressures as a result of current events.