News Story

Union Contracts Protect Bad Cops, Mayors’ Report Says

Some police union contracts contain provisions that would bar misconduct investigators from using videos like those of George Floyd who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police and sparked a national debate on race in this country.

The restrictions apply to videos taken by a third party, and limit investigators to using videos that come from the alleged victim, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The conference has just released a new Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice, calling for reform of police collective bargaining agreements that they say frequently provide too many obstacles to rooting-out bad actors.

It stated, “Officers must have due process, but CBAs often contain provisions that go far beyond necessary protections and impede a department’s ability to investigate misconduct allegations and, in a timely fashion, hold officers accountable.”

The report pinpointed specific clauses in union contracts.

One involves imposing binding arbitration requirements that interfere with decisions to discipline an officer.

"CBAs typically contain mandatory arbitration provisions that place disciplinary decisions in the hands of nondemocratically selected arbitration panels," the report stated. “These panels have the power to overturn and dilute decisions by police department leadership on accountability. They make it difficult if not impossible for a police chief to uphold high standards and department policy.”

The arbitrators may even have a financial incentive to not rule against the police union, according to the report.

“Arbitrators (or, in the case of three-person panels, the ‘neutral arbitrator’) must be approved by both the department and the union, but arbitrators in police discipline cases frequently handle only those cases, so their livelihood depends on being acceptable to the union. It is the experience of many chiefs that arbitration panels frequently return serious and repeat offenders to duty. This is a key reason that it is so hard to discipline and remove errant officers,” it stated.

Other contractual obstacles to police accountability include barring investigations of anonymous complaints and requiring complainants be the alleged victim. Some contracts require an alleged victim to provide sworn statements within a narrow window of time.

The report stated, “While frivolous complaints are a concern, these contract provisions may allow a police officer to escape even the initiation of an investigation of alleged serious misconduct simply because a complainant is unwilling to be identified. Indeed, it may be surmised that the more serious the misconduct, the more reluctant a witness may be to step forward because of fears of retaliation.”

The executive summary of the Conference of Mayors report found that CBAs “with police unions often set the ground rules for officer investigations and disciplinary proceedings. Officers must have due process, but CBAs often contain provisions that go far beyond necessary protections and impede a department’s ability to investigate misconduct allegations and, in a timely fashion, hold officers accountable.”

“Cities should stop the practice of bargaining away management rights as a trade-off for raises sought by police unions,” recommends the Mayors’ report. “At the very least, CBAs must vest in the chiefs authority to hold officers accountable for following applicable law and policy.”

These findings echo what police chiefs in Michigan and across the country have often said is a huge barrier to police reform.

Former Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon placed “Rehabilitation within police unions” high on the list needed reforms in a Detroit Free Press op-ed published after the death of George Floyd in police custody.

He wrote, “Their intransigence makes it almost impossible to fire and hold officers accountable for breaking the law and the public’s trust.”

In a Washington Post op-ed former Ann Arbor Police chief Daniel Oates called the police misconduct appeals process “staggeringly favorable to bad cops.”

“The case goes either to an arbitrator or to a panel, a ‘civil service commission’ appointed by the city council,” he wrote. “The arguments are always the same: The chief’s investigation was shoddy; the chief had a vendetta against this particular cop; other cops did this before and weren’t fired; the alleged misconduct wasn’t really that bad. Too often, arbitrators feel the pressure to ‘split the baby’ in their decisions. Perhaps the cop is docked pay or demoted; otherwise, he’s back on patrol.”

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo withdrew his department from further contract negotiations with the Police Officers’ Federation of Minneapolis in the wake of the riots that followed George Floyd’s death.

Arradondo said at the time, “There is nothing more debilitating…than when you have grounds to terminate an officer for misconduct and you are dealing with a third-party mechanism that allows for that employee to not only be back on your department but to be patrolling in your communities.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.