In cases of misconduct, American law enforcement officers enjoy the protections of police unions and their all but elusive connections to high-ranking officials in local government, local police departments, and district attorneys to maintain secrecy and avoid accountability.
Police union contracts with cities all over the country offer many protections for officers facing complaints from the public for excessive use of force, corruption, murder, and a whole host of other crimes. These contracts cover everything from withholding information from the public to letting officers view the evidence against them prior to being interrogated.
Union contracts with cities across the nation use language that gives officers an unfair advantage over the legal system. Privileges not afforded to the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve. In addition, they also use language that gives officers access to the names of complainants and the nature of the complaint before being interrogated.
In Houston, the Police Union contract states that officers are to be given access to all witness statements prior to interrogation. Section 30.4 reads as follows: “An officer is entitled to and shall be provided written statements or affidavits received or gathered by the investigative authority from witnesses, officers or supervisors obtained during the investigation before the officer’s interrogation, if the interrogation is based in whole or in part upon such witness’ statement(s). If an officer is not given the witness’ statement(s), any such statement may not be used to support an administrative action or discipline against the officer.”
In Chicago, in section 6.1.E of the Police Union contract states: “Immediately prior to the interrogation of an Officer under investigation, he or she shall be informed in writing of the nature of the complaint and the names of all complainants.”
In Miami, Section 8.1.D of the Police Union contract states: “All identifiable witnesses shall be interviewed, whenever possible, prior to the beginning of the investigative interview of the accused officer. The complaint, all witness statements, including all other existing subject officer statements, and all other existing evidence must be provided to each officer who is the subject of the complaint before the beginning of any investigative interview.”
It is worth noting that not all Police Union contracts have language like this in their respective collective bargaining agreements with their officers. Due to growing public scrutiny, however, it is becoming more common across the country as Unions continue to argue for more protections for police officers, allowing them to circumvent equal justice under the law.
Aside from Union contracts enforcing equal pay, physical standards, mental health standards and protecting employees from their employers, as any other Union does, nearly every Police Union contract has shown to have entire sections devoted to blocking accountability. From disqualifying misconduct complaints if an investigation takes too long, to limiting consequences for officers by reducing the capacity of oversight programs and limiting the media from holding police accountable by withholding evidence from them.
Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately following an incident and restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated allows for other officers and Police Unions to coach the offending officers as to what to say and do — as noted in the Amber Guyger case in Dallas, Texas. In addition, exposing witnesses prior to an interrogation makes them vulnerable to retaliation as was noted in the suspicious murder of Joshua Brown, a key witness in prosecuting Guyger.
The clauses used to protect officers from accountability became evident in the most recent murders of Botham Jean in Dallas, and Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Texas — Black folks killed in their own homes by white officers. In both cases, Union representatives were/are highly involved behind the scenes providing bail, a legal team, and working with evidence disclosed to them in advance of an officer being charged with a crime. In the Guyger case, her Police Union president was on the scene within minutes.
The first days after an incident of misconduct allow for an officer’s representatives to develop a narrative, devise a strategy for the defense, and arrange bail prior to a charge being filed. As stated in many Police Union contracts, the initial 48–72 hours require that the offending officer’s identity be withheld while all witness statements and witness identities are turned over to the officer along with the evidence that has been presented.
In addition, officers are also granted the privilege of reviewing any and all statements they have made in writing (or recorded) prior to being interrogated. In cases where an officer must be re-interrogated, they are then provided with copies of their previous statements allowing them and their cohorts to maintain their stories, whether fact or fiction.
In Chicago, section 6.1.H of the Police Union contract states: “An Officer under investigation will be provided with a copy of any and all statements he or she has made that are audio recorded or in writing within seventy-two (72) hours of the time the statement was made. In the event a re-interrogation of the Officer is required within the seventy-two- (72-) hour period following the initial interrogation, the Officer will be provided with a copy of any prior statements before the subsequent interrogation.”
Many Police Union contracts are worded similarly and these clauses allow for officers to fabricate narratives that allow them to circumvent justice, as was the case in the death of LaQuan McDonald. Not only did Jason Van Dyke lie to justify the murder of McDonald, but four Chicago police officers were fired for helping him cover-up the fatal shooting.
Without the nine-member Chicago Police Board, all of the offending officers would have likely gotten away with murder as they have before. The board also filed complaints against six other officers, but those officers left the department prior to being disciplined. Meanwhile, every officer-involved, with the exception of Van Dyke, would not be charged or found guilty of testilying (perjury and/or making false statements) to cover up McDonald’s murder.
Patrick Murray, first vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, criticized the board’s decision saying, “It is obvious that this Police Board has out-served its usefulness” while arguing for each officer’s innocence. However, the Justice Department’s investigation into the McDonald case concluded that there was a “pervasive cover-up culture” in Chicago.
“If you’re the ones out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, well just know we’ve all got your number now. We’re going to be keeping track of all of y’all, and we’re going to make sure to hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers.” — Joe Gamaldi, president Houston Police Officer’s Union
What is clear is that Police Unions are granted entirely too much power and privilege over our system of justice, particularly when it comes to protecting officers despite their guilt. Union representatives are given too much airtime and credibility within the media allowing them to frame the narratives around police misconduct. President of the Houston Police Officer’s Union Joe Gamaldi’s verbal attacks and threats towards the activist community in Houston, after a botched drug raid killed two innocent people, is a recent example of that power.
The way forward seems simple enough to the average American taxpayer: transparency, oversight, and accountability. However, pushback from Police Unions, who also lobby our state legislative bodies and participate in local political actions, is the biggest hurdle to overcome for the American people. Police Unions are deeply embedded in local and state government giving them yet another unfair advantage over the people they are tasked with protecting and serving.
But, it can be done.
Last year, the City of Austin, Texas and the city’s police union agreed to reforms that activists say could shape the Austin Police Department into one of the most transparent law enforcement agencies in the country. In November of 2018, Austin City Council members approved an ordinance creating a new Office of Police Oversight — an independent police watchdog that reports to the city manager.
The Office of Police Oversight is empowered to initiate complaints against officers, investigate allegations of police misconduct and publicizing its findings. Unlike the city’s old police monitor office, the new office can now accept anonymous complaints. It’s also authorized to conduct periodic audits of police body and dashboard camera footage, as well as use-of-force incidents.
The new oversight structure will make the department more transparent while making it easier for citizens to reform the department instead of allowing the Austin Police to investigate itself. Police reform advocates argue that the status quo in Police Union contracts across the nation allow cops to subvert justice by allowing very limited oversight. The structure of the Office of Police Oversight in Austin could prove to be a model that ensures police accountability by setting a new standard moving forward.
It’s certainly a great place to start.