How Chicago's Police Union Contract Ensures Abuses Remain In The Shadows

From In These Times:

by Adeshina Emmanuel

IN APRIL, CHICAGO POLICE VOTED IN A FIERY NEW UNION PRESIDENT, Kevin Graham, who has vowed to fight the attacks of the “anti-police media.” Graham wasted no time in making his agenda clear. “We look forward to immediately preparing for the upcoming contract negotiations, fighting the anti-police movement in the city, and obtaining fair due process and discipline for our members,” he said in a statement following his victory.

The union contract between the city of Chicago and the 8,000-member Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) expires on June 30. Previous contract negotiations have taken place out of the public eye, but this year, a high-profile fight is brewing.

A February report from the Coalition for Police Contract Accountability (CPCA) observes that the city’s contract, as well as a separate agreement with the sergeants’ union, “make it too hard to identify police misconduct, and too easy for police officers to lie about and hide misconduct.” The coalition, which includes the ACLU of Illinois, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice, has identified 14 contract provisions it says impede investigations. One such provision allows police officers to wait 24 hours to give a statement after shooting someone. Another prohibits anonymous complaints against officers.

A few days before Graham’s election, at Occupy Palm Sunday, an annual gathering organized by Chicago churches, Drea Hall of CPCA read these contract provisions aloud to a palm-frond-waving crowd. The crowd chorused in response, “That ain’t right!”

“Now’s the time to put pressure on our mayor, to put pressure on our aldermen to do the right thing,” she said.

Activists aren’t alone in zeroing in on police union contracts as a roadblock to reform. A January Reuters investigation examined contracts in 82 cities and found a pattern of protections that create hurdles for citizens in reporting police abuse. Most contracts require destruction of police disciplinary records after a certain period. Nearly half allow officers to view the evidence against them before being questioned about alleged misconduct. Chicago’s FOP contract contains both of these provisions.

The city’s Police Accountability Task Force, commissioned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the release of graphic video showing the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald, reported in April 2016 that collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between police and the city had “turned the code of silence into official policy.” And in January, following a 13-month civil rights investigation, the Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that Chicago police routinely use unreasonable force against civilians, particularly African Americans, and that “deficient” accountability systems aid and abet this behavior. The DOJ report specifically urged the city to “work with the unions to address certain CBA provisions.”

Prior to Donald Trump’s election, it was assumed that if the DOJ found a pattern of unlawful policing in Chicago, it would impose reforms via a court-monitored agreement. But that’s become unlikely, as both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have pledged to scale back federal oversight of local law enforcement.

One June 14, six community groups, including Black Lives Matter Chicago, filed a federal lawsuit hoping to force the city to submit to court oversight of its reform process. Attorneys who filed the suit say that Chicago could do this by negotiating a consent degree with the community organizations, rather than the federal government. In the meantime, local reformers are looking to exert leverage during the city’s upcoming negotiations with the FOP.

Activists have allies on the City Council, where more than a dozen of the 50 aldermen have signed on to a resolution calling on Mayor Emanuel to endorse the CPCA’s 14 recommended reforms to the FOP contract. In April, Alderman and Black Caucus Chairman Roderick Sawyer said that his 18-member group would vote down any contract that fails to include these changes.

For progressives, this is tricky terrain. “There’s a slippery slope when you start beating up on unions,” says DeAngelo Bester, executive director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice. “No one wants to join that right-wing chorus … trying to destroy public bargaining.”

On the other hand, police unions are “separate from the larger labor movement,” he says. “These groups out there who go and endorse people like Donald Trump … who then goes and appoints people who are anti-union—I would say, let’s separate them.”

Bester says progressives should not work to undercut police wages and benefits, but go after provisions that allow police “to get away with murder.”

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