Police termination hearings allowed to remain closed
INDIANA–Hearings to decide the fate of Merrillville police officers charged with wrongdoing need not be public to be full and fair, the Indiana Supreme Court in Indianapolis decided in mid- September.
The ruling rejected the arguments of two Merrillville police officers who raised questions about the procedural fairness of a closed termination hearing conducted by the city’s Metropolitan Board of Police Commissioners.
Following an incident involving the two officers, the Merrillville police chief filed charges against the pair in February 1990. The commissioners’ board conducted a hearing on the charges in executive session, despite the officers’ requests that the meetings be made open to the public. After the hearing the board conducted closed deliberations, then reconvened and terminated the two officers.
The officers successfully fought to overturn the ruling in the Circuit Court at Newton. The trial court ruled that, despite no express language in Indiana’s open door law providing for a public hearing, the statute does require the board to conduct such a hearing before making the decision to fire city police officers. The appeals court affirmed.
Rejecting the reasoning of the lower courts, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that nothing in the open door law mandates that termination proceedings be public. The court said the law does provide written notice requirements including time and place of the hearing, charges against the officer, and conduct comprising the charges. The officer is entitled to counsel, and to cross-examine witnesses, require the production of evidence and have subpoenas issued.
Finally, the court found that procedural fairness was satisfied because the officers were represented by counsel and were given the opportunity to respond in the closed hearing to the charges against them. (Town of Merrillville v. Peters)