In one of the less wonderful employee termination decisions to go public recently, Rice University in Texas has fired a campus police officer for going to the aid of two Houston police officers who were shot in the line of duty, a couple of blocks off campus. Zachary Roth reports for Yahoo! News (link here):
It was a Saturday on campus when David Sedmak, a Rice University police officer, heard “Officer down, officer down!” on his scanner: Two members of the Houston Police Department had been shot downtown. Sedmak rushed to the scene to help his fellow officers.
But Rice didn’t see Sedmak as a hero. Instead, the university fired him, citing “dereliction of duty.”
The university said in a statement that its officers often assist other law enforcement agencies when the need arises. But Sedmak erred, it said, by not informing the university police dispatcher about where he was.
Houston police officers and their union are supporting Sedmak and calling for him to be reinstated. The article quotes a representative of a Texas association for police officers as saying that unless an officer is a chronic disciplinary problem, this kind of situation should be addressed with corrective counseling if necessary, but certainly not termination.
Private vs. public employment
Rice University is a private institution, and Sedmak is not a member of the police officers’ union. That in itself may explain why persuasion and publicity are being used in an attempt to have him reinstated, rather than resorting to arbitration and grievance processes that can be invoked in collective bargaining situations.
In any event, this strikes me as being among the reasons why employees need protections against unfair or unjust discharge. Most American workers are at-will employees who can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. Especially in view of the exigent circumstances present in this situation, termination seems to be a harsh, even mean-spirited result.
Fringe benefits at stake too
At stake is more than “just” one job. As reported in television news coverage of the situation (link here), Sedmak left the Galveston police department to take the job at Rice so his children would qualify for tuition benefits at the university. Now their educational plans may be seriously disrupted as well.
It galls me when defenders of the legal status quo remark that if someone doesn’t like or loses his job, he can simply pull himself up by his bootstraps and find another one. For most people, even a voluntary job change has repercussions and stress points. With an involuntary job loss or forced resignation, however, the consequences can be personally seismic, sending shock waves throughout an immediate family.