Laquan McDonald died on Oct. 24, 2014. It wasn’t until 399 days later, after months of pressure from activists and journalists, that the Chicago Police Department finally released the incriminating video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the 17-year-old 16 times.
The video’s release led to general outrage, widespread suspicion of a coverup, first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke and the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent. Now, a group of activists are drawing the public’s attention to a major factor they say contributed to the unconscionable delay: police union contracts that can make it difficult to prosecute or investigate culpable officers.
Last week, four activists launched The Police Union Contract Project to study “the ways in which police union contracts across the country block accountability.” The effort is part of Campaign Zero, a broader initiative started in August by the same group of four in order to address police violence. DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett, Johnette Elzie and Sam Sinyangwe all met on Twitter through their activism in the Ferguson protests and #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Police Union Contract Project partnered with the online public-records startup MuckRock in June 2015 to file public records requests for contracts. The founders were motivated by the “struggle to create civilian oversight” in St. Louis after the Ferguson protests and by the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, in which “officers weren’t compelled to make statements for several days,” Sinyangwe, one of the founders, told The Huffington Post.
They decided to focus on police union contracts after their analysis of fifty cities’ documents surfaced a number of similar clauses that they say hindered police accountability. The resulting index is the first public database of police union contracts in the country. “Police unions routinely use language that vilifies oversight and protects officers,” said Sinyangwe.
Most large cities’ police unions are part of the umbrella organization called the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, with a handful of exceptions like Camden, New Jersey. FOP’s 325,000 members account for more than a third of the sworn law enforcement officers in America, and its benefits include legal representation and job security.
The group’s preliminary findings are summed up in an infographic highlighting problematic clauses in the police contracts of 17 major cities (below). The red blocs indicate which of four major loopholes are present in each city’s police contracts. The most commonly cited loophole in the police contracts analyzed by PUCP is “limiting civilian oversight,” which applies in fourteen cities.
Union contracts are not the most exciting thing to explain to the general public, admits Sinyangwe, but that’s exactly why PUCP chose to focus on them. The contracts are generally not a topic of national discussion because they are “kept under wraps for a long time, hidden, usually not online, and highly dense,” he said. “This issue has really been hidden in plain sight.”
Samuel Walker, a civil liberties expert and former University of Nebraska professor who worked closely with the Project founders, calls the PUCP a “tremendous contribution” to the issue of police unions, which he says has been “buried in the shadows for decades,” but really came to light last spring in Baltimore. He said the two most important issues the Project highlights are the waiting period after an accusation of wrongdoing (”a protection that no other employee groups have”) and the purging of discipline records. It is “essential to know an employee’s full work history,” he told HuffPost.
Union contracts that reduce police accountability is not exactly a new phenomenon. Walker traces the protective language to the late 1960s, as a reaction to the Civil Rights movement and its attendant criticism of the police. At that time in America, there was a “new opportunity to organize into unions,” which was seized by the “rank and file officers who felt besieged,” he told HuffPost.
Today, the charged national discussion about policing includes the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” the idea that police officers are “reluctant to enforce the law because they are afraid of being videotaped” or excessively disciplined, according to The Hill. For the most part, unions have stood by their officers accused of wrongdoing in high-profile cases. On Dec. 2, in a now-deleted Facebook post, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild shared the PUCP infographic with the comment, “Yes folks... We are under attack... All the while other unions (Teachers) get a free pass when they break the law...”
Jim Pasco, the Executive Director of the FOP nationwide, told HuffPost that he thinks the “idea that the police are some kind of privileged class of citizens is wrong,” and that recent years, with the scrutiny of a 24-hour news cycle, have been “challenging times” for the profession. Pasco, a retired officer, said that “police officers, just like you, have constitutional and civil rights,” and that practices highlighted by PUCP are not unique to the police. He claimed that expunging records, for instance, is a “common employment practice across the whole fabric of American society.”
Sinyangwe maintains that the “types of information that are being systematically erased” are important for “identifying and addressing officers who might be dangerous to the public.” In the future, the Project plans to work with lawyers and activists to develop fair and transparent model contract language. It’s a work in progress, said Sinyangwe, but contract reform is the “next arena” for racial justice.
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