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U.S. Conference of Mayors: Fix police union contracts

A report and recommendations released by the United States Conference of Mayors calls for increasing police accountability through reforming police union contracts and the arbitration system as well as redefining the role of police as opposed to “defunding” police departments.

“Through elections, the public holds mayors, and by extension police chiefs they select, accountable for the conduct of those who serve in police departments,” the Report on Police Reforms and Racial Justice says. “But the chiefs’ authority to hold officers accountable is frequently undermined by unnecessary procedural obstacles imposed by collective bargaining agreements and state statutes.”

“We should not complain when a reform-minded chief is unable to produce the results that we want if we do not remove these obstacles and provide that chief with the authority to carry out that mission,” the authors wrote.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors includes 1,400 mayors of cities with populations of 300,000 or more, so no city in Connecticut is included. However, the working group assigned to create the report included the mayors of Chicago, Tampa and Cincinnati and the police chiefs of Baltimore, Phoenix and Columbia.

Some of these cities – namely Chicago – have been hot-spots for social unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis when officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for an extended period of time.

The report runs the gamut of issues that have come to light in Connecticut as well as in those large cities across the country. The Connecticut legislature in July passed the Police Accountability Act during special session, which was then signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont.

The bill was contentious and drew the ire of police officers and police unions as it removed some of the qualified immunity protection for police officers. 

The bill also eliminated the ability of police union contracts to override state Freedom of Information laws, a provision which is now being challenged in court by the Connecticut State Police union which negotiated an FOI exemption in its contract.

Cities should stop the practice of bargaining away management rights as a trade-off for raises sought by police unions.

U.S. Conference of Mayors, Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice

But despite the intent of the bill, it did not address the ability for departments to discipline officers for bad conduct both on and off the job. Connecticut has seen numerous incidents of officers fired for offences, only to be reinstated after a grievance arbitration hearing.

“Over the years, police contracts – union CBAs – have evolved into much more than standard labor contracts,” the report says. “They cover the expected areas – hours, wages, benefits – but many have grown to include substantial barriers to basic accountability.”

The report says that the “greatest concern about CBAs and officer accountability involves the arbitration process that often follows a department’s decision on how to resolve a review of an officer’s conduct.”

Specifically, they write that “non-democratically selected” arbitration panels can overturn disciplinary action with little recourse left to the city or the department and that arbitrators “can be put out of business” if they side against the union because the arbitrators must be approved by both the department and the union.

If an officer is disciplined or fired, the officer can file for grievance arbitration in which an individual or panel of arbitrators reviews the case to see if the department had “just cause” for disciplining the officer. 

Just cause can be a high hurdle in some cases and has resulted in the reinstatement of officers in Connecticut who were fired for actions both on and off duty.

The City of Hartford, for instance, is fighting a court case to overturn an arbitration decision to reinstate an officer who used numerous racial slurs when he was arrested for drunk driving in New Britain. Another Hartford officer who told a group of youths that he felt “trigger happy” has also filed a grievance to get his job back.

Municipalities face an uphill battle in taking arbitration decision to court. The courts regularly side with the arbitrators because both the union and the municipality agree to honor the arbitrator’s decision in the union contracts.

The report also points out that some police contracts negate anonymous or third-party complaints against officers, limit the amount of time in which a complaint can be filed, delay investigation, end investigations prematurely and purge records of misconduct.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in a review and report on police union contracts in Connecticut, found several municipalities had similar limitations on complaint reviews, misconduct investigations and records retention, sometimes in violation of state statute.

The report points out that state regulations regarding collective bargaining allow unions to negotiate not only wages and benefits but also “other conditions of employment,” which is a catchall phrase allowing disciplinary procedures to be a subject of negotiations.

Washington D.C. and Hawaii eliminated discipline from collective bargaining agreements, while Nebraska established a baseline “floor” for negotiating matters of the discipline process and Oregon negotiated a “discipline matrix” for arbitrators to use in reaching their decisions.

The report also takes on the “defund the police” movement, noting the phrase “means different things to different people, but actual defunding is not the path to better public safety and enhanced public trust.”

Rather, the report says that police alone should not be used to respond to calls in which a different social service may be more helpful. Instead, they propose that on some calls police should be partnered with a mental health provider or social worker.

The authors suggest cities and states look at the data on calls for police to assess whether or not a co-responder model might be necessary, or possibly using the police as a secondary responder rather than a first responder.

“The mayors and cities represented by the Conference are varied but united,” the report concludes. “We face, on a daily basis, the issues born of the challenge of reforming our policing practices. We are committed to bringing about real, lasting change.”

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