Additionally, police unions and municipalities have negotiated to throw out misconduct complaints after a certain time period. And if an officer shoots someone, the contract likely gives him or her what’s known as a “cooling off” period, which prevents management from questioning the individual and witnessing officers about the incident within a certain time period, usually 48 hours.
Also, some states give additional layers of protections for officers, with laws generally known as police officers’ bills of rights.
In fact, few, if any, unions have as much power in bargaining for discipline, internal investigation stipulations and conditions of employment as police do, say labor lawyers interviewed by the ABA Journal. And although complaints about police union contracts are not new, the criticisms have amplified since May, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was arrested May 25 after he was accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. He died in police custody after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, allegedly held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds despite Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe.
Following massive protests across the country amid COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, Chauvin, 44, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder days after Floyd’s death. The 19-year police veteran had had at least 17 misconduct complaints lodged against him, but his only discipline before Floyd’s death was two letters of reprimand, the New York Times reports.
Reuters in June analyzed Minneapolis Police Department officer complaints over the past eight years and found that 9 of 10 misconduct investigations were resolved without punishment or intervention with regard to behavior modification. Of 3,000 complaints during the time period examined, only five officers were fired.
Janeé Harteau, a former Minneapolis Police Department chief, told Reuters disciplinary decisions that get challenged and reversed via arbitration and union grievances made it difficult to have accountability in the department.
Taryn A. Merkl, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York, agrees such reversals can handcuff the effectiveness of police management. “When you include those sorts of checks on management authority, it can create a culture in the department where officers think management is adversarial to them, and whatever management decided to do was unfair,” says Merkl.
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