What Authority Does a Police Merit Board Have?

Liberty L. Roberts

Author: Liberty L. Roberts

POST DATE: 2.16.17
Ccha  Government

Many Indiana police departments have merit boards.  However, police officers, merit board members, and citizens are sometimes confused or unclear about the authority of the merit board.

Indiana Code § 36-8-3.5 et seq. provides for the creation of merit boards.  Under the statute, a municipality may pass an ordinance establishing a merit system for its police department.  The state statute outlines powers and duties available to a merit board.  However, not every merit board has all of the powers and duties identified in the statute.  Section 3(b) of the statute explains that the municipality has discretion to adopt some, but not all, of the provisions of Ind. Code § 36-8-3.5 et seq.  You must look at your municipality’s ordinance to determine what powers are granted to your merit board. 

Ordinance establishing a police merit system must contain certain minimum provisions.  For instance, the ordinance must provide that at least one-third (1/3) of the merit board members must be elected by the active members of the police department.  Additionally, merit boards must have the power to conduct disciplinary hearings.  Those hearings must meet minimum due process standards.  Specifically, the officer must be provided with advance notice of the hearing, the charges against him, and the facts and circumstances supporting the charges.  The officer must be given an opportunity to be represented by counsel, to subpoena witnesses, to present testimony and evidence, and to cross examine witnesses. 

The municipality has discretion to decide whether the merit board will have powers relating to the selection and promotion of officers.  Some municipalities opt not to give their merit board the power to select or appoint new officers, or the power to determine promotions.  The police chief or a separate committee or board may retain the power to make decisions relating to selection and promotion of officers.

After looking at the ordinance, you should look at the rules adopted by the merit board.  Every merit board must adopt rules within 90 days of the date the board was created.  Those rules govern and explain how the board will exercise the powers granted to it.  The rules adopted by the merit board cannot grant the board more authority than what was initially provided in the establishing ordinance.  If the ordinance only gives the board the power to discipline officers, the board cannot adopt rules that give it the power to approve the promotion of officers.  Similarly, the board cannot adopt rules that provide it with the power to approve all rules and regulations for the operation of the police department, as that is beyond the board’s scope of authority.

Finally, when determining what powers or authority your merit board has, it is important to understand if your merit board is truly a “merit board” as defined by Ind. Code § 36-8-3.5 et seq.  The term “merit board” is sometimes used generically to refer to any board that has power to discipline police officers.  Some departments operate under a system that provides powers to a safety board, which can be confused with a merit board.  Additionally, some departments operate under a system that provides powers to a metropolitan board of police commissioners.  Each system is established under a separate state statute.  Indiana Code § 36-8-3.5 et seq. does not apply to safety boards or metropolitan boards of police commissioners. 

We are ready and willing to assist in answering your questions regarding police merit boards.  Contact us to discuss how we can help. For more information about Libby and her practice, please visit her profile.