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The State of Police Unions

The State of Police Unions

May 29, 2018 | On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark was fatally shot by Sacramento police officers— struck eight times, mostly in the back. The police officers who killed Clark stated that they believed him to be holding a firearm, yet all that was found on Clark’s body was a cell phone. Protesters took to the streets almost every day for weeks after the shooting, demanding a change in policy concerning police action and calling for the firing of the officers involved. They argued that the officers acted outside of the law and that they were not being held accountable for their actions. The question at the front of everyone’s minds seemed to be: how is it possible for law enforcement to act this way without any form of repercussion, and how is it possible that it happens so frequently?

Police accountability is not a new issue in American politics, but with the recent death of Stephon Clark, as well as the deaths of over 300 other people by police in 2018 so far, it has become clear that holding officers accountable for their actions can no longer be shoved under the carpet. The Stephon Clark case has reignited a battle for police accountability and has brought illegal police action to the forefront.

The Stephon Clark case is all too familiar. An unarmed black man was shot dead by police officers. The two officers on the scene used excessive force and muted their body cameras in order to communicate privately after the shooting occurred. Both of the officers are currently on paid leave pending an investigation. These statements echo throughout cases across the United States, and show a pattern of irresponsibility that extends back decades in US history. These cases do not only exemplify the power of police—they show the unparalleled power of police unions.

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is an organization made up of law enforcement officers in the US. With over 300,000 members in the union, the FOP is able to negotiate union contracts for police officers that grants police with huge amounts of power.

Police union contracts have become a crucial way for police departments to wield power and exert control over their jurisdictions. In early 2017, Reuters conducted a study of 82 police union contracts and found within them a distinct pattern of protection for police. Nearly half of the contracts allow for officers who have been accused of misconduct to access the entire investigative file before they are interrogated. 17 cities set time limits for citizens to file complaints about officers, and nine cities restrict the investigation of anonymous complaints. A majority of contracts call for police departments to erase disciplinary records as soon as six months after they are filed, and 18 cities require an officers’ written consent before documents are released that involve prior discipline or investigations. What this all boils down to is that police union contracts create barriers to accountability because they call for the destruction of evidence and allow for officers to be unfairly protected over the citizens that they swear to protect.

Police union contracts used to be a way to negotiate salaries and healthcare, but disciplinary negotiations began to enter contracts in the 1980’s, when budgetary cuts pushed discussions away from increases in pay. Since then, these contracts have spiraled out of control, becoming a way for unions to ensure that their officers will never face disciplinary action after breaking the law while on the job.

Sacramento is not the only city struggling with police accountability. In many cities, the police union contracts are even more drastic than the average leniency afforded to officers. In Chicago, for example, the current contract—which actually expired in June 2017, but remains in use until another can be negotiated—bans the investigation of anonymous complaints, bans rewards for police who provide information about misconduct, allows officers a 24 hour delay in giving a statement after a shooting, and lets officers change their official statements about potential misconduct if and when recording of the incident surfaces and conflicts with the police statement. In 2016, the city of Chicago received 1,000 civilian complaints regarding police, yet had only one disciplinary action. One Chicago officer, Raymond Piwnicky, racked up 89 misconduct allegations in his career, with only one resulting in punishment. His record exemplifies the power that the contract has to protect officers from any disciplinary action.

The Chicago police union contract is one of the most aggressive in the country, and is currently facing much needed scrutiny from local organization. However, it is an uphill climb. Across the country, police unions flex their might, shielding their officers.

Another example of this comes out of Columbus, Ohio, where in August 2012 Joseph Hines was brutally beaten by police officers. When he regained consciousness, Hines was charged with six crimes. The two officers involved, Thomas DeWitt and Debra Paxton, had a history of misconduct complaints, more than 40 combined, yet the details of many of the cases are missing because the Columbus police department destroys these files every four years, in line with the union contract and records commission. The officers in this case were never even suspended. This case further goes to show the steps that union contracts allow officers to take in order to escape punishment for misconduct.

It would be impossible to discuss police accountability without also addressing the issue of race. A Justice Department investigation found that Chicago officers use force almost ten times more in incidents involving black suspects, and the American Journal of Public Health has reported that black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police than white men. Police union contracts do nothing to combat this proven pattern of profiling. To the contrary, they allow for officers to get away with unlawful force even when it disproportionately affects people of color. The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division published a report saying that the “pattern of unlawful force we found resulted from a collection of poor police practices”; poor practices that are protected by police contracts. The report also states that this pattern must be addressed through increased police accountability.  

Stephon Clark’s death was a tragedy, and it points to a larger pattern of police power and a lack of accountability within law enforcement. When police union contracts protect police from having to be responsible for their actions, they are able to act without any scruples, and the results can be deadly. However, the response to Clark’s death also hopefully points to a change in the system. The Sacramento police union has signaled that it is open to changing its policies following the shooting, accepting that the union needs to be responsive to the city. The ACLU of California and a group of California legislators have also introduced a new bill to change the state’s law about the use of deadly force by police, hoping to restrict the situations in which police officers are able to use deadly force only when necessary. This legislation, the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act, will hopefully reduce the number of people killed by police and change the culture of power that emboldens and protects police who commit unlawful acts. However, the battle for police accountability remains decidedly uphill, and without strong and enduring efforts it is likely that Stephon Clark’s death will not be the last of its kind.

Tamar Shuhendler is a graduate from Lewis & Clark College's international affairs program.


The views expressed in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo by Daniel Schwen [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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