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Wornie Reed
Wornie Reed

National Commentary

When Unions are the Problem

Of at least 4,024 people killed by police between January 2013 and June 2016, only 85 of these cases led to an officer being charged with a crime, and only six of these resulted in convictions. The main culprit is the 1989 Graham v Connor U.S. Supreme Court decision, which in effect gives police a license to kill, which police use disproportionately against African Americans. In the last five years, Minneapolis police used force against blacks seven times the rate of whites.

A second primary reason police officers may not be prosecuted successfully for violent misconduct is police union contracts in cities across the country. Labor unions exist to protect workers, but most workers are not authorized to use deadly force as part of their jobs. Police unions have contracts that make it virtually impossible to hold police accountable for killing unarmed African Americans.

As explained by Alexia Campbell of the Center for Public Integrity, “police union contracts typically include language to hide complaints against police officers from the public. The contracts often have arbitration clauses that frequently force police departments to rehire misbehaving cops.” Police unions have successfully lobbied for state laws granting officers far more job security than the average U.S. worker.

In 2016 Campaign Zero reviewed police union contracts of 81 of America’s 100 largest cities. Working with legal experts, advocates, and academics, they identified six major areas where these contracts contribute to making it more difficult to hold police accountable for misconduct.

  1. Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete.
  1. Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident, restricting how, when, or where they can be questioned.
  1. Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get before being interrogated.
  1. Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and the media to hold police accountable.
  1. Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct, which include giving officers paid leave while under investigation, and paying legal fees, and the cost of settlements.
  1. Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file.

Deals in 72 cities included at least one of these barriers to police accountability. Significantly, the police union contract in Louisville had all six of these stipulations. Minneapolis had #2, #4, #5, and #6. #6 might explain why Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was still on the force with 18 previous complaints filed against him.

While Graham v Connor provides substantial cover for police officers to use force against unarmed citizens, police unions almost guarantee that they will get away with it even when their actions are excessive. Importantly police unions are powerful forces against any reforms.

For example, four years ago, the top prosecutor in St. Louis tried to rein in the city’s high rate of police violence by, among other things proposing a unit with the prosecutor’s office that would independently investigate police misconduct. The police union responded by successfully pressuring lawmakers to reject the proposal.

In some instances, unions have not resisted reforms directly but made it difficult for them to be implemented. In Cleveland, they slowed the adoption of reforms mandated by a federal consent decree.

Police unions always support officers accused of misconduct. See the police union in Buffalo that stands “100 percent” behind two officers who were suspended on Thursday after they caused a man to fall and injure himself. They even gathered in large numbers and applauded the officers at their arraignment.

New York City police unions are notorious in their opposition to legislation for state reforms. Recently, they had a statewide group of police officers urging the state legislature to keep the laws that hold disciplinary records secret.

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National labor unions support these out of control police labor unions, making this an instance of unions being on the wrong side of civil rights issues.

The bottom line is that there will be no meaningful reform of policing in the United States unless these union contracts are abolished or changed substantially. To accomplish reform, cities might need to follow the Minneapolis City Council, which plans to eliminate the current Department.

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