Now Campaign Zero has announced a similarly impressive effort to clarify its call for “fair police union contracts.” Its activists researched union-negotiated labor agreements in many jurisdictions and flagged the most damaging provisions. Their efforts are important. These legalistic clauses do tremendous damage to American cities.
Last year in “How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the Street,” I referenced specific cases to show that “too many cops who needlessly kill people, use excessive force, or otherwise abuse their authority are getting reprieves.” Several common union-contract provisions are particularly egregious, as Jonathan Smith, a former chief of the special litigation section in the Department of Justice’s civil-rights division, explained in a New York Times op-ed in May:
... an officer involved in a shooting often cannot be interviewed at the scene; internal affairs investigators have to wait days to get a statement. Many police departments allow officers to collaborate on a use-of-force report and permit officers to view bodycam recordings before writing a report to “get the story straight.” We found that senior officers rarely questioned a use-of-force report, even if it was incomplete or inconsistent, or used boilerplate language.The ability of police departments to review civilian complaints may also be proscribed by union rules.
In Portland, Ore., a 2012 Justice Department investigation revealed a process in which two-thirds of complaints were dismissed without inquiry. Those that did get investigated were subject to a six-tier review process that took more than a year to complete. Very few complaints were ever resolved.
The union protections also hamper departments’ ability to audit police conduct. This is critical when officers are involved in shootings. In many cities, we found that relatively few officers were responsible for a majority of use-of-force incidents. Yet cities rarely track the data or look for patterns of misconduct.
Smith’s expert analysis maps closely onto the provisions of police union contracts that Campaign Zero has focused on, as a graphic released by the group makes clear:
Seven of the cities highlighted in the graphic “have collective bargaining agreements with similar provisions delaying the interrogation of officers being investigated for use of force and erasing the resulting documentation of abuse. Thirteen have agreements that accomplish one or the other,” Steven Cohen writes in The New Republic. “In Austin, Houston, Louisville, and San Antonio, police union contracts go so far as to require 48-hour notice before an interview with an officer can be conducted, a precaution predicated on the utterly baseless claim that the buffer helps preserve accurate memory. Before Cleveland’s recent settlement with the Justice Department, the personnel files of its police were wiped clean every two years.”