How Union Contracts Shield Police Departments from DOJ Reforms

June 23, 2016

Adeshina Emmanuel speaks about his new investigative report for In These Times, which proves that police unions' collective bargaining agreements often thwart reforms mandated by the federal government

Adeshina Emmanuel speaks about his new investigative report for In These Times, which proves that police unions' collective bargaining agreements often thwart reforms mandated by the federal government



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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

Last winter the Chicago Police Department came under fire when the city released a video of officer Jason Van Dyke killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The US Department of Justice opened an investigation of the police department to determine whether or not it exhibits patterns or practices of abuse. If so, the DOJ can impose measures of reform.

But, as a 2015 Washington Post report shows, results of this process have been mixed. A new report in the July issue of In These Times uncovers a reason for these mixed results. The DOJ issued reforms are often thwarted by police unions.

Joining us from Chicago to discuss these findings is Adeshina Emmanuel. Adeshina is an independent, Chicago-based journalist and an Ida B. Wells Fellow with the investigative fund at the Nation Institute. He’s the author of this new report, “How Union Contracts Shield Police Departments from DOJ Reforms.” Thanks for joining us today.

ADESHINA EMMANUEL: Thanks for having me, Dharna.

NOOR: So, again, Chicago’s police department is currently under DOJ investigation for police abuses. Lots of other police departments are too, including here in Baltimore since shortly after the killing of Freddie Gray.

EMMANUEL: Right.

NOOR: Can you explain a bit more about how these investigations work, what they’re looking for, how reforms are issued?

EMMANUEL: Yeah. So, um, basically the Department of Justice will come in and they’ll conduct an investigation. That might entail them talking to police officers, talking to community members, local folks, you know, getting their own numbers, whatever, you know, sort of information they think is relevant for them to make a determination of, you know, is there a pattern or practice of civil rights violations. And once they have completed their investigation they will issue a findings report, which is basically their conclusions about what they’ve found.

And from that cities, the police departments and the Department of Justice are supposed to basically reach an agreement that is essentially a road map for reforms. It might say, you know, let’s implement an early warning system to flag problem officers or let’s establish a civilian oversight board, or let’s revise use of force policies or different procedures related to holding officers accountable. And the most rigorous of these agreements will be court-ordered and federal, you know, basically ordered by federal courts and monitored by a federal monitor, and these are known as consent decrees. There are other settlements that have been outside of court or aren’t necessarily as sort of, as binding.

But, basically, cities and their police departments agree to these under the threat of litigation that, you know, the DOJ’s empowered by a 1994 law to essentially compel them to implement some of these reforms, but the caveat is, of course, that some of these measures they can only implement to the extent allowable under collective bargaining agreements, which is language that’s written into a good deal of these consent decrees which is sort of where my investigation started, with looking at those particular clauses within the consent decrees.

NOOR: So, you reviewed 17, the 17 different consent decrees that have been reached in the US since 1997, and it was at least seven of those 17 that you found collective bargaining agreements by police unions stalled or blocked the reforms that the decrees required? How exactly did those collective bargaining goings-on happen?

EMMANUEL: Yes, and it’s important to emphasize, you know, at least seven. I mean, I found evidence through court–you know, through monitors’ reports and through other documents and news reports that very directly tied a line, you know, to these contracts and failures in implementation of the reforms. But, essentially, for example, one way, what’s a good example? I’d say there’s, something known is, well, there are delays, basically, for disciplining officers–well, not delays, [inaud.]

There are rules that say, if you don’t complete an investigation and discipline an officer within a certain time period you can’t discipline them at all. For instance, in the Virgin Islands I believe it’s 50 days. The agency that investigates police misconduct has about 50 days to complete an investigation and recommend discipline, and if they don’t then they can’t discipline an officer even if they’ve had a sustained finding that there was some wrongdoing that happened.

And that will run counter to things in a decree that will say, well, you know, improve and strengthen your disciplinary and investigative procedures and, you know, basically try harder and be more effective in holding officers accountable. But when you have a union contact that says, well, even if you, basically, if you don’t complete an investigation within a certain time span you cannot discipline somebody. That seems to sort of flout the idea of accountability, because there’s all sorts of reasons why, you know, lots of these agencies have backlogs of, you know, investigations. Let’s say they’re just late getting to something, or the investigation is obstructed or slowed down in any other kind of way, now you have no way to, you know, let’s say fire or suspend an officer who’s been found guilty of [inaud.]

NOOR: And there are some people who say that police union contracts aren’t actually that different than other public sector union contracts, you know, teachers’ union contracts, for instance. From your findings, did you find that that’s accurate or not accurate?

EMMANUEL: Well, as the article says, you know, in broad strokes, these protections are very much like what you would see and what many people would expect in, let’s say, if you were part of a teachers’s union or part of a firefighters’ union. You want to be able to avoid being fired for bogus reasons. You want some due process. You want an ability to have grievances filed in case there’s, you know, again, there’s some mistreatment from management. You want to negotiate for fair wages and work conditions and, you know, you do want to protect workers. In that, the contracts are no different.

But when you compound several of the different protections and you look at how they play out, in effect, sometimes they have the effect, experts and critics say, of delaying investigations, of obstructing efforts to discipline officers, of giving officers the opportunity to cover up, you know, alleged crimes. And when we look at the particular job that police officers have, well, on one hand, they certainly have an extraordinary job and they deserve perhaps some degree of protections beyond what a normal citizen would have.

But, in effect, when these are people who have power over life or death or freedom or jail for a lot of people, it becomes more problematic and it’s not as clear-cut as saying, well, these are just worker protections that everybody should have. I guess the effects of these protections are very different in a lot of ways than the effects of, you know, protections for teachers, let’s say.

NOOR: And since the death of Laquan McDonald, especially, there’s been, as you said in your articles, some mobilization around making changes to the contract of the Chicago Fraternal Order of the Police. There’s been some attention to put on these union contracts. Can you talk about that? Who’s mobilizing, what changes are being fought for and has there been any progress?

EMMANUEL: Yes. Well, you know, before all of this happened with Laquan Mcdonald and this video being released there, I wouldn’t say, and I grew up in Chicago, I wouldn’t say there was a great deal of awareness or scrutiny of police union contracts outside of, you know, benefits and pay.

What’s been happening is that people ask the question, well, why can’t we, why was this person still on the force after having, you know, a certain number of complaints or lawsuits against them or why–Any other job, you would assume that somebody who costs the city lots of money in lawsuits and who was constantly the subjects of complaints, you know, would probably be out of a job. And when people ask themselves, well, why do certain officers maintain their jobs and why are some of these investigations, why are there all these little procedures we have to follow, people begin, I think, to look at the union contract.

And the FOP president, Dean Angelo, was sort of irked and says that he feels that the union’s being scapegoated in a way, that these are protections that have been in place for decades and lawmakers who are talking tough who voted for these, you know, who approved these protections, well, you know, where were they back then? But I just think that it’s an extraordinary moment which is where we are now in the aftermath of Laquan Mcdonald’s death and the release of that video, that people are really, really looking for solutions and answers and for deeper understanding of some of the structural issues that might explain why there are certain issues in policing.

And the contract certainly cannot be blamed for all the issues with the police department. It would be, it would definitely be selling short a lot of the other problems and actors who are contributing to issues here in Chicago that need to be addressed. But, it is an emerging sort of part of the puzzle that people are more and more aware of. And the mobilization, I believe the, BYP 100, for instance, they have protested outside the FOP credit union. There are, you know, activist groups who are, you know, looking toward explaining to their members just how this works, what role the union has in, you know, being sometimes, some people say, a barrier to police accountability.

I think now a lot of folks are really in the education phase of making sure they understand the structural picture and how the contract plays into that and, you know, keeping an eye on contract negotiations which are, for the sergeants and captains and lieutenants, that’ll be something that happens this summer, but for the bulk of police, the rank and file, that will happen next summer, that there’ll be renegotiations, so I think a lot of the mobilization right now is education and people growing their learning around this topic.

NOOR: Sure. And I’m glad that we’re going to be armed with this knowledge going forth, looking at the DOJ investigation going on here in Baltimore as well as those going on in Chicago and Ferguson and others. So, thanks so much for your report and thanks for being with us today.

EMMANUEL: Well, thank you for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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