Police unions have helped shield officers from accountability. Now they’re facing unprecedented backlash
All of them were fired by the police chief. And all of them were rehired after an arbitrator overturned their dismissals — in a process laid out in the contract between the city and the powerful police union. In more than four out of 10 of the cases in which arbitrators ruled on officer terminations over the last decade, those firings were overturned, according to data provided by the San Antonio police department. "We've seen too many cases where the arbitrator has overturned the chief's decision when it's as clear as day that that officer accused of misconduct should no longer be on the force," Ron Nirenberg, the city's mayor, told CNN. "It's egregious." San Antonio is hardly an exception: Around the country, police unions have played a decisive role in shaping department policies and shielding bad cops from accountability, experts say. Now, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd have refocused national attention on police misconduct, unions representing officers are facing a wave of new scrutiny and an unprecedented political backlash. More than 85% of police contracts in major cities around the country include language limiting oversight or discipline of officers, according to an analysis by Campaign Zero, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. Often negotiated behind closed doors, contracts in some cases are approved by local politicians whose campaigns have been bankrolled by the same unions they're dealing with. And police unions have only grown in financial power in recent years: The total assets of 56 large city police unions jumped by almost a third between 2011 and 2017, according to a CNN analysis of IRS tax filing data. In the wake of Floyd's death, however, the tide has started to turn, with some cities moving to reform their collective bargaining procedures and labor activists edging away from their police colleagues. Stephen Rushin, a Loyola University Chicago law professor who has studied police unions and contracts, said a national rethinking of the role of police unions could have a significant impact in holding more cops accountable. "This moment feels different," he said. "This could be a really important inflection point."
How union contracts block accountability
In cities around the country, police officers are some of the most difficult government employees to fire thanks to favorable contract provisions negotiated by local unions. Contracts block accountability in various ways: Some ban civilian oversight or require disciplinary records to be destroyed. Others put limits on internal investigations, give officers advance notice for interrogations or require the city to pay if officers are held liable for misconduct in court. Rushin, who analyzed more than 650 police union contracts around the country, found in a 2019 paper that more than two thirds of the contracts forced police departments to go through an appeals process when they wanted to fire or discipline officers, placing the final decisions in the hands of arbitrators "selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer." That means that even if those cities approve tough new regulations about use of force, for example, it could be hard to jettison cops who don't follow the rules. Those disciplinary procedures are negotiated in the contract bargaining process at the same time as issues like salaries, wages and benefits for officers, Rushin said. "Particularly in budget-strapped cities, when officials can't meet the financial demands of the union, the concession they're ultimately forced to make is on discipline," Rushin said. "They can bury the disciplinary measures in the contract, and the public may not understand what it means, even as the monetary savings make the headlines." Across the country, union-negotiated disciplinary procedures help keep officers with problematic records on the job. In Minneapolis, for example, only about 1.5% of complaints filed against officers resulted in suspensions, terminations or demotions between 2013 and 2019, according to a CNN analysis of data from the city's Office of Police Conduct Review. Officers even have been rehired after being fired for high-profile fatal shootings. In Miami, an arbitrator in 2014 ordered the police department to reinstate detective Reynaldo Goyos, who fatally shot an unarmed man in a shooting that a department review board ruled was "unjustified." And in Oakland, officer Hector Jimenez won his job back in arbitration in 2011 after being fired for fatally shooting two unarmed men in separate incidents within a year, shooting one in the back. Some research has suggested a relationship between law enforcement collective bargaining and misconduct. A University of Chicago study found that misconduct complaints against Florida sheriff's deputies increased after they won the right to collectively bargain in 2003. Police union leaders say the discipline rules they've won in contract negotiations are important to guarantee their members due process, and that officers deserve strong protections due to the danger and unpredictability of their jobs. "Police officers are under attack, and I think you're going to see less people sign up for the job," said Jeff Roorda, executive director of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which successfully stymied an attempt by the local district attorney to form an independent unit to probe police misconduct. "What we do is defend police officers' due process rights, the same rights every American has." But other experts argue that police contracts are so favorable for officers largely because of the political power of unions and their influence among local elected officials. "Police unions have much more protection than other government or other public unions," said L. Song Richardson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine. In several cities, officers have elected more bombastic leaders in recent years, thrusting their unions into culture war battles and strongly opposing reforms. In Minneapolis, union president Bob Kroll has called the protests over Floyd's death a "terrorist movement," maligned Floyd for having a "violent criminal history," and bragged that none of the three police shootings he's been involved in has bothered him. And in Chicago, officers in May elected a new president, John Catanzara, who is one the most frequently-disciplined officers in the history of the department, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Even as he took office leading the city's cops, Catanzara had been stripped of his own police powers, limiting when he can carry his gun and badge. The department is investigating him for filing a false or misleading police report against a former superintendent after Catanzara accused the superintendent of allowing protesters to block a highway in 2018. Catanzara has previously been reprimanded and investigated for social media posts supporting President Donald Trump, which violated rules about officers making political statements on the job. And last month, Catanzara declared that any officer who kneeled in support of protesters while in their uniform could be kicked out of the union. A spokeswoman for Catanzara declined an interview request from CNN, and Kroll did not respond to a request for comment.
Why fired cops get hired again
Policing experts say that San Antonio's union-negotiated contract is among the most favorable for a police union. Texas law puts final decisions about officer discipline in the hands of arbitrators chosen in agreement between cities and unions and, in most cases, blocks the department from imposing discipline for any incident that took place more than 180 days earlier. San Antonio's contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association goes farther, limiting past incidents arbitrators can take into account when deciding whether to uphold punishments. Other provisions in the contract restrict interrogations of officers during internal affairs investigations and, in some cases, allow cops to avoid a suspension of up to 45 days if they forfeit accumulated vacation, bonus time or holiday leave. Of 24 officer terminations since 2010 that were ruled on by arbitrators, 10 were overturned, or about 42%, according to the department's data, which was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News. In 12 other termination cases, officers resigned or retired before the case went before an arbitrator, and in 20 other cases the chief settled with officers, allowing them to come back with a reduced punishment. Those settlements often come at the advice of the department's lawyers, and some are entered into because of the likelihood an arbitrator would overturn a termination, a SAPD spokesman said. Out of 81 police contracts analyzed by Campaign Zero, San Antonio's is one of just six that contain language limiting accountability in all of the areas the group tracked. Rushin's analysis also found it to be "one of the most deferential to law enforcement interests," he said. The contract was approved by an 8-2 majority on the city council in 2016, over objections from local activists, who said the discipline language made it a sweetheart deal for police. According to Texas campaign finance data, the San Antonio union's political action committee has spent more than $2.3 million since 2010, including more than $300,000 in direct contributions to political candidates. The group had previously made donations to half of the city council members who voted for the 2016 contract, as well as the mayor who negotiated it. William McManus, the police chief, called the contract's limits on discipline frustrating. "To have an arbitrator undermine the chief's authority to determine what is best for their department and their community contributes to the notion that there is no police accountability," he said in a statement. But union president Mike Helle said the process defended officers from being subject to the chief's "whims." "There's nobody on this police department that wants a policeman that's bad because it tarnishes all of us," Helle told CNN. "The only thing that we have negotiated for and we continue to hope for is that we just have a fair process."
The bad cops 'need to be off the street'
Over the years, San Antonio arbitrators have overturned terminations for eyebrow-raising examples of misconduct, even when none of the facts were in dispute. In July 2018 body camera audio captured Officer Tim Garcia repeatedly using the n-word as he arrested a Black man for trespassing at a local mall. A review board recommended Garcia be fired, and McManus moved to "indefinitely suspend" him from the force. At Garcia's disciplinary hearing in 2019, McManus called his behavior "the most inappropriate language I have ever heard used during an arrest," according to arbitration records. But the arbitrator, Thomas Cipolla, disagreed with the punishment, reducing Garcia's sentence to a 10-month unpaid suspension and sending him back to the force. "One diatribe does not automatically denote a racist," Cipolla wrote in the ruling. "I find myself coming to the conclusion that (Garcia) was off that day and said some awful things he should not have said and is now sorry for them." Garcia, who is still on the force, declined to comment through a police spokesman, but the union has vocally defended him, with Helle telling the Express-News last month that using the n-word was as offensive as Mayor Nirenberg using the word "goddamn" in a recent speech about police violence. "Throughout anybody's career, they're gonna make mistakes," Helle told CNN, saying Garcia "couldn't apologize more." Other officers had their terminations overturned after bizarre behavior. Officer Matthew Belver was fired in 2016 after a dashboard camera captured him removing an arrestee's handcuffs and making him an offer: If he beat him in a fight, he could go free. The arrestee declined. In arguing for Belver's termination, the department pointed to another 2010 incident in which he allegedly challenged another arrestee to a fight and then punched him in the face. But the police contract negotiated by the union bars the department from invoking years-old cases to justify firings, except under certain circumstances — a provision the arbitrator noted in his decision reducing the 2016 firing to a 45-day unpaid suspension. Belver, who declined to comment, is still on the force but is required to ride with a partner at all times, a department spokesman said. Officer Matthew Luckhurst was fired in 2016 after admitting he put dog feces between a slice of bread and left it near a homeless man. The man didn't eat it, but another officer testified that Luckhurst had later spread rumors that he force-fed the man the sandwich, according to the arbitration ruling, and the chief concluded his behavior was "inhumane." The arbitrator reduced Luckhurst's punishment to a five-day suspension because it took the chief more than 180 days to impose discipline in the case. But Luckhurst was fired again just a few weeks after his first termination for another poop-related incident: smearing a brown "boba tea smoothie" on the seat of the only toilet in the women's locker room of a police station, according to arbitration documents. That decision was upheld by an arbitrator last month. Luckhurst did not respond to a request for comment. Some officers have faced termination only to be returned to the force again and again. One lieutenant, Lee Rakun, was fired six times over his more than two-decade career at the department for offenses ranging from racist statements to dating violence allegations, CNN affiliate KSAT and the Express-News reported. Again and again, the chief settled to bring him back or an arbitrator reinstated him. Rakun retired froRead More – Source