From city to city, union contracts have become just as crucial in governing departments as police manuals and city charters. Yet those contracts are coming under scrutiny amid civil rights protests over alleged police abuses, including shootings of unarmed black subjects.
Reuters, examining the fine print of 82 police union contracts in large cities across the country, found a pattern of protections afforded the men and women in blue:
• A majority of the contracts call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months, making it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuses. In 18 cities, suspensions are erased in three years or less. In Anchorage, Alaska, suspensions, demotions and disciplinary transfers are removed after two years.
• Nearly half of the contracts allow officers accused of misconduct to access the entire investigative file – including witness statements, GPS readouts, photos, videos and notes from the internal investigation – before being interrogated.
• Twenty cities, including San Antonio, allow officers accused of misconduct to forfeit sick leave or holiday and vacation time rather than serve suspensions.
• Eighteen cities require an officer’s written consent before the department publicly releases documents involving prior discipline or internal investigations.
• Contracts in 17 cities set time limits for citizens to file complaints about police officers – some as short as 30 days. Nine cities restrict anonymous complaints from being investigated.
Police supporters say the contract rules are common-sense protections.
“Our job isn’t to keep bad officers in this profession. Our job is to make sure that due process is given to the officers,” said Rick Weisman, director of labor services at the National Fraternal Order of Police. “If the agency’s got a case, make your case.”
But many law-enforcement veterans think the protections go too far.
“The balance has dramatically shifted … to the creation of barriers to actual accountability that don't serve the public good,” said Jonathan Smith, former chief of special litigation in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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