clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Rewrite Chicago’s police union contracts to restore a shaken public’s confidence

Police contracts across the country — and certainly in our city — make it virtually impossible to hold rogue officers to account. Now is the time to rethink them.

Police and protesters square off on May 30, 2020, in downtown Chicago amid unrest over the death of George Floyd.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rewrite the contracts.

Police union contracts in many American cities, including Chicago, have become a threat to community safety by shielding abusive police officers. They just gotta go.

As police unions have spread across the nation over the last half-century, they have secured provisions in collective bargaining agreements that protect their members from answering to the public, or even to elected officials. Many contracts make it virtually impossible for police departments to punish rogue officers.

There is a straight line from those collective bargaining agreements to misconduct by individual officers, who know there is little risk of their being called to account. Last year, a University of Chicago study found misconduct complaints — though not a large number — increased after a Florida court gave sheriff’s deputies the right to unionize.

“Our estimates imply that the right to bargain collectively led to about a 40 percent increase in violent incidents at [sheriff’s offices], which appears to persist over time,” the study said. The study did not examine details of particular union contracts, said Dhammika Dharmapala, a U. of C. law professor and one of three authors of the study.

Everyday abuses

How does police misconduct — the everyday forms of abuse — play out when a union contract subverts accountability?

We witnessed a brief but classic example on Monday night, on the 4600 block of North Broadway, when an officer — caught on video — pushed a man to the ground and struck him twice in the head with his fist. No official inquiry has established exactly what occurred, but we’ve seen this kind of quick beat-down time and again.

“We are seeing our loved ones and our neighbors — people we care about — constantly saying: ‘Why is no one doing anything about this?’ ” said Tanya Watkins, executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, also known as SOUL. “Why are police officers back at work the next day after they have blackened a 14-year-old’s eye or hit a black grandmother with a bat?”

Most police officers do a hard job well. And we believe fully in the right of officers to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, job security and working conditions. The city’s largest police union has been working without a contract since June 30, 2017, nearly three years.

And, yes, it’s also only right for police unions to protect their members from false or exaggerated complaints, which are always a risk of the job.

The danger to society, however, comes when union contracts throw up absurd obstacles to civilian oversight.

“We have to hold police, not to lower standards of accountability, but to higher standards,” said state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who has introduced legislation to curb some abuses.

Society gives to the police extraordinary powers — to physically manhandle people when necessary, to deprive people of their liberty, to even take a life. Extraordinary accountability and oversight is required in return, and nothing in a union contract should be allowed that compromises those checks and balances.

What bad contracts include

Around the country, elected officials have ceded too much oversight of the police. Disciplinary records are kept secret. Misconduct complaints are deep-sixed if they are not filed or investigated within artificially tight deadlines. Contracts prevent investigators from probing additional misconduct turned up during the course of an investigation. Contracts give officers plenty of time to get their stories straight — among each other — before being questioned.

Here in Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police contract covers 8,200 of the 13,400 sworn officers in the city. There are separate contracts covering CPD’s sergeants, lieutenants and captains.

The FOP contract includes provisions that virtually codify the so-called police code of silence. It is among the worst police contracts in the country. Among its provisions are:

  • People making complaints must file a sworn affidavit, and their names are turned over to the officer they are accusing. The U.S. Department of Justice said this creates a “tremendous disincentive to come forward with legitimate claims.” A provision permitting investigators to override the affidavit requirement is rarely used.
  • Police are allowed to wait 24 hours before making statements after police-involved shootings, and they can amend those statements after seeing and listening to video or audio evidence.
  • Rewards for police officer whistleblowers are banned.
  • Police misconduct records are destroyed after five years.
  • Interrogators are limited in what they can ask officers during investigations of alleged misconduct.

“What we have done, in effect, is decide not to know about police misconduct — to make it hard to learn the truth and to remember it,” Adam Gross, director of police accountability for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, told us.

All these indefensible provisions remain in force until a new contract is written. A federal consent decree overseen by an independent monitor, the Illinois attorney general’s office and a judge requires that the city and police department make an effort to build reforms into the next contract, but who knows how hard anybody is really trying. The negotiating process has not been transparent.

More than individual cops

Police contract reform is not just about holding to account the individual bad cop. It’s about reforming the culture and practices of police departments.

Bad contracts in Chicago and elsewhere make it hard for police chiefs to run their departments. And every bad police officer left on the street is a bad influence on others.

Police unions have won their most indefensible contract protections through bald political power. Often, there’s just nobody willing to cross them. Mayors and city councils dread the thought of openly fighting with their police, sure they’ll catch hell at election time.

In San Francisco last year, the local police union spent $700,000 to defeat a candidate for supervisor. The candidate won and they lost — but not for lack of trying.

But you know what, Lori Lightfoot? And all you other mayors?

Do the job.

“The mayor is voted in by the cities to make decisions that are best for the their constituents, regardless of how hard it is to fight for a good contract,” said Mecole Jordan of the New York University School of Law Policing Project, which is running a program to implement a new community policing philosophy in Chicago’s 25th and 15th police districts. “That is their job.”

Reform around the edges

On Tuesday, when Lightfoot called for a series of police reforms over 90 days, it was hard to get excited. She talked only about educational and support programs for officers, expanding youth-led neighborhood tours for officers, letting community members instruct police about the history of their neighborhoods and strategies for de-escalating confrontations.

Unable to unilaterally rewrite the FOP contract, she’s nibbling around the edges.

Negotiating a new contract could be complicated by the possibility that the process could be moved to arbitration, where essential reforms might be rejected. To counter that, the city must build a thorough factual record and present a strong public case now for reform. Hammer home why this contract cannot stand.

“Inaction has a consequence,” said Cara Hendrickson, executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

Maybe Hendrickson saw that video of the cop on Broadway, too.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.