Editorial: Start police reforms with union contracts
At the risk of jumping in front of the pitchforks, let us state what should be the obvious: Most police officers are decent people who take seriously their job of protecting the public, and frequently risk their lives doing so.
Just as obvious, however, is the reality that there are a few bad cops who present a danger to the public.
Unfortunately, the good officers provide a shield for the bad ones in the form of collective bargaining agreements negotiated on their behalf by police unions.
Reform of police departments must start with stripping union contracts of provisions that make it almost impossible to fire officers, even when their conduct suggests a propensity for violence.
Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who has been in law enforcement for 45 years, says union contracts are among the biggest impediments to rooting out dangerous cops.
"A prominent lawyer here in the ’70s or ’80s said a police officer in Detroit has more avenues of appeal than a mass murderer," says Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief. "We’ve got to be able to get rid of officers who we as leadership know are people we should not have in our midst."
People like Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer accused of killing George Floyd last month, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for reforming policing practices.
Chauvin had been investigated 17 times in his career, but disciplined only once — he got a letter of reprimand for yanking a woman out of her car during a traffic stop.
He was not disciplined for an earlier fatal shooting of a man who allegedly pointed a gun at him, nor for shooting another man during a domestic dispute call. In a third incident, he fired his weapon at a suspect.
Chauvins record was made public only after Floyd’s death. Most union contracts include confidentiality clauses that keep such histories private.
The executive order President Donald Trump issued Tuesday would set up a national database to improve transparency, preventing the common practice of officers transferring from one department to another without public oversight of their records.
That’s an essential step. But it does little to remove dangerous officers from their current jobs.
A recent Duke Law study concluded that police contracts create a legal barrier to disciplining officers that is almost impenetrable.
"... (A) substantial number of these contracts unreasonably interfere with or otherwise limit the effectiveness of mechanisms designed to hold police officers accountable for their actions," the study says.
"For example, many of these contracts limit officer interrogations after alleged wrongdoing, mandate the destruction of officer disciplinary records, ban civilian oversight of police misconduct, prevent anonymous civilian complaints, indemnify officers in civil suits or require arbitration in cases of disciplinary action."
Union contracts that keep dangerous cops on the job hurt both good police officers and the public.
Rewriting those agreements should be high on the to-do list of reforming policing.