Powerful Police Union Blocks Modest Civilian Oversight Reform
A recent contract negotiated by the Baltimore with the police union left out a key provision that would have included a civilian on internal disciplinary boards, a move that has caused concern that long-awaited reform efforts have stalled
S. Janis: This is Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Just how powerful are police unions? Well, the key provision that would’ve allowed civilian oversight in a recent contract negotiation that was dropped tells us how powerful they really are.
Del. Curt Anderson: That’s what many of these groups that have complained about, that have protested, and demonstrated was that we don’t know what happens.
S. Janis: To the people who watch reform policing in cities like Baltimore, holding cops accountable starts with strong civilian oversight.
Michael Wood: That input is so much more important than what you’re doing. Like even if we’re doing what you want to do and we’re doing it wrong, we’re gonna end up in a better result because it’s what you wanted and you’ll at least say “Okay, we don’t want to do that anymore. The results didn’t turn out well.”
S. Janis: Which is why the Real News was in the state capital in 2016 covering the announcement of then state senator and now Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh of her support for one step towards that idea, including a civilian on police trial boards.
Catherine Pugh: We hire police to protect and serve our communities and so they need to hear from the community.
S. Janis: Police trial boards are internal disciplinary bodies, which mete out punishment for cops who violate departmental policy. And the idea was to have civilians serve on that board as a start to include the community in the process of police oversight, but the law in Indianapolis would have required it failed despite her support. Still, even in defeat she promised to make it part of a new police contract.
Catherine P.: We believe that having well-trained citizens on the trial boards are important.
S. Janis: Which is why news Baltimore’s powerful police union, rejected civilians on trial boards as part of failed negotiations is raising questions not just about Pugh’s commitment to civilian input, but the power of policy union to thwart reform.
We’re you surprised that that was not even in the contract that had been voted upon?
Kristerfer Burnett: It was surprising to learn that that wasn’t even on the table.
S. Janis: But the lack of progress raised concerns among council members that the city was taking a step backwards.
Alright, so the union contract that was voted down did not have this civilian review board member on it. Does that concern you?
Brandon Scott: Well, yes. It’s a little concerning, but I’ll have to follow with the administration to see, talk about why that wasn’t one of the things on the table. Maybe they’re gonna try to attack it through legislation. They’re gonna author another issue of the civilians on trial boards. So, we’ll see.
S. Janis: We asked Pugh for comment and the future plans for civilian input. Her spokesman told us she will lobby for a law requiring civilians on trial boards during the upcoming 2018 legislative session, but even if that works, some say civilians on trial boards is only a beginning and a far cry from civilian controlled police.
S. Janis There should be a board of civilians who run the police department?
Michael Wood: Sure, yeah. Absolutely. And they run everything. Maybe they don’t control budgeting, but we don’t care about that because in reality what we want is a less and less budget for policing because we want to find other answers that aren’t violence and oppression and force.
S. Janis: But in the meantime, disappointment at city hall.
Kristerfer Burnett: I think it’s something that we have to continue to push on our end. Being outside of the room, it’s a little hard for me to comment on why that took place or why it didn’t.
S. Janis: That long-awaited reform was derailed by force more powerful than the need for change.
Brandon Scott: I think that we should have it and I think that ultimately will, but we know that on the state law it has to be collectively bargained unless they choose not to and we have to deal with that for what it is for now.
S. Janis: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.