The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police chiefs and mayors push for reform. Then they run into veteran officers, unions and ‘how culture is created.’

A woman prays outside Scott Food Mart in Houston at a makeshift memorial and a mural for George Floyd.
A woman prays outside Scott Food Mart in Houston at a makeshift memorial and a mural for George Floyd. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)

The push to rethink American policing since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May has quickly gained traction. Cities and states have banned chokeholds and certain other uses of force, Congress is considering legislation to do the same, and some local officials have moved to reduce police funding.

But issues central to this ongoing debate — including how officers should police communities and how departments police their officers — may prove to be insulated from these policy proposals.

Police and city leaders have repeatedly adopted changes, only for these efforts to run headlong into two formidable and interconnected forces: veteran officers who resist these efforts and the powerful unions fighting discipline. This combination can make it difficult for departments to evolve, even after they publicly pledge increased training and greater accountability, former law enforcement officials and experts say.

Minneapolis’s experience shows how difficult it can be to change a police department.

Last year, after police there used fatal force in two high-profile encounters that led to protests, Mayor Jacob Frey felt he had to do something bold. Frey announced the nation’s first-ever ban on “fear-based” and “warrior-style” police training, which teaches officers that every encounter with a citizen is fraught with danger and could be fatal.

The rebellion from the police union was immediate. The group’s brash president, Lt. Robert Kroll, said he wanted officers with “ice in their veins” and was “proud to embrace” warrior training. Kroll made his own announcement: Free lessons in the aggressive, military-style policing methods were available for every Minneapolis police officer who wanted them.

Kroll’s formal training never came to pass, but around that time, warrior-style training videos were shared among the force to blunt reforms, said two officers who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

The response highlighted what experts say are pivotal barriers to improving policing across the country, even as momentum grows for rethinking and reforming law enforcement practices.

It begins when new officers, fresh out of the academy, get some version of “the talk” when they get to a department, former police chiefs and other experts said in interviews.

“They go out on the streets with their field training officer, and the first thing they hear, and I heard the same thing: ‘That’s the academy, this is the street, kid, the real world, and things are different here,’ ” said Janee Harteau, a former Minneapolis police chief who pushed reforms when she led the department.

“That’s how culture is created,” said Harteau, who was ousted in 2017 amid an outcry after a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed a woman who had called 911.

Police union officials argue the fault is not with the officers. Jim Michels, a lawyer for the Minneapolis union, said there is no follow-through from supervisors after training. “Unless supervisors hold officers to the standards to which they have been trained, the training itself is meaningless,” he said.

Influence on rookies

When now-former officer Derek Chauvin was captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for minute after minute, three other officers were present — including Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, who both graduated from the Minneapolis Police Department’s academy last year.

They were supposed to be part of a transformative movement. Years of training changes meant Lane and Kueng would bring a guardian-style approach to their work with the community. They were supposed to be equipped with de-escalation techniques and methods to intervene when another officer used excessive force.

The rookie officers — and Tou Thao, an eight-year veteran of the force — did not stop Chauvin as he drove his knee into Floyd’s neck.

Experts said the newer style of “guardian-style” training, which has gained traction in police academies over the past five years, can be quickly superseded by the words and actions of an experienced officer showing a rookie the ropes.

They pointed to Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis police and a field training officer, and his encounter with Floyd as an example.

“You can spend eight months training someone, then you put them in this situation. That’s at the heart of reform,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with police departments. “You can get everything right in training, then you have this guy.”

A newer officer out with their field training officer is “supposed to respect what he’s doing,” Wexler said. “A 19-year veteran is revered.”

It was Lane’s fourth shift patrolling the streets of Minneapolis and Kueng’s third. The officers were all fired and face criminal charges.

Kueng’s attorney declined to comment, and attorneys for the other three men did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Kroll, the union president, initially defended all four ex-officers but condemned Chauvin’s actions in media interviews last week. He did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Michels, the Minneapolis police union lawyer, said Chauvin’s actions were “disgusting and outrageous.”

Field training officers can also be promoted despite complaints about how they police. Chauvin had at least 17 prior complaints filed against him, with just one that resulted in disciplinary action, according to department records.

“Doesn’t it seem logical that you would not put someone with that kind of record in a supervisory position?” said Timothy Bildsoe, a member of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets training requirements for police departments in the state.

The only complaint that resulted in disciplinary actions against Chauvin came from a 30-year-old woman he pulled over in 2007, who was yanked from her vehicle and placed in the back of a patrol car for going 10 mph over the speed limit, records show.

The woman filed a complaint the next day. Investigators said Chauvin “did not have to remove the complainant from car” and that the interview could have been done “outside the vehicle,” records show.

His discipline: a letter of reprimand.

More than a decade later, Chauvin was a field training officer on the streets with rookies. Spokesmen for Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police chief, declined multiple interview requests.

Police officers can get worn down by the change in police chiefs — who are often out of the job in just a few years — and a parade of new policies, said Hassan Aden, the former police chief in Greenville, N.C.

“Officers in departments that have constant change in leadership get fatigued and at some point, they develop the attitude that I’m going to outlast this,” Aden said.

Unions criticized

Since Floyd’s death, advocates for reform have taken aim at police unions and described them as obstructing change. Top police officials across the country signed an open letter this month saying “contracts and labor laws hamstring efforts to swiftly rid departments of problematic behavior.”

These unions can hinder attempts at reform, current and former police chiefs say, because they undermine attempts at accountability, including disciplining or getting rid of the “bad apples” on the force.

In Minneapolis, Kroll’s proposed warrior training last year was part of a broader pattern of pushing back against changes and critics, including denouncing Minnesota officials as “despicable” in a recent letter.

“It was open insubordination that continues,” Andrew Johnson, a city councilman, said of Kroll’s push for the warrior training. “If that’s the culture, you have to wonder how effective new training and reforms are going to be.”

In Minneapolis, Arradondo announced two weeks after Floyd’s death that he was walking away from contract negotiations with the police union. Arradondo said he’d return to the table with outside experts to help him strip away provisions allowing rogue officers to remain on the force. His biggest gripe: binding third-party arbitration.

“There is nothing more debilitating to a chief . . . than when you have grounds to terminate an officer for misconduct and you are dealing with a third-party mechanism that allows for that employee to not only be back on your department but to be patrolling in your communities,” Arrandondo said recently.

Michels, the lawyer for the police union, responded on Facebook that the laws that govern arbitration for officers are no different than they are for any other public employee in the state.

Through arbitration, when police chiefs seek to fire or discipline an officer, the union can appeal that decision — which leads to an arbitrator being picked to make the final call. Former police chiefs say this dilutes their authority and weakens their ability to improve departments.

“They don’t stand up and support you when you fired the bad cop,” Harteau said of the police union in Minneapolis. “Instead they grieve it, get his job back, praise themselves and tell the officers, ‘We’re the only ones who care about you . . . we’ve got your back.’ That’s a huge hurdle.”

In Minneapolis, arbitration can be a lengthy process.

Two Minneapolis police officers who work in a majority black community were fired last year for decorating a Christmas tree in 2018 with a malt liquor can, a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and a pack of Newport cigarettes.

The day after images surfaced on social media, Frey, the Democratic mayor, condemned the incident as “racist” and “despicable” and said the officers would be fired within the day. Instead, the firings took months. A year and a half later, the case is still tied up in arbitration.

In nearly half of the cases in Minneapolis, firings are overturned, the police union and city officials said.

A 2017 Washington Post investigation found that dozens of the country’s largest police departments were forced to rehire nearly one-quarter of officers who were fired for misconduct and appealed.

Stephen Rushin, an associate law professor at Loyola University Chicago, reviewed more than 650 police union contracts.

Rushin found that most departments let officers facing discipline have multiple levels of review, including an appeal to an arbitrator — who then had “significant authority to re-litigate the factual and legal grounds for disciplinary action,” he wrote in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review last year.

Each layer of review given to officers might be defensible on its own, but “may combine to create a formidable barrier to officer accountability,” he wrote.

“If you’re ordered to rehire an officer who’s dangerous, who’s dishonest, who can’t testify as a witness . . . that’s a danger to the entire public,” Rushin, whose father was a police officer, said in an interview.

Michels, the union lawyer, defended arbitration. “It’s easier to blame arbitration than to look in the mirror,” Michels said. “When management loses a case, it’s because they either failed to prove their case or they have failed to adequately discipline the employee before it was raised to the situation that is being arbitrated.”

Because of state labor laws, arbitrators must also look at past disciplinary measures that were taken when officers committed similar offenses, said Peter Ginder, a former Minneapolis deputy city attorney who negotiated contracts with the police union. The purpose is to make sure discipline is meted out evenly, and not used as a weapon against an employee a boss doesn’t like, or is discriminating against due to their race, gender or sexual orientation.

That makes it difficult for a new police chief, who wants to turn around the department, to take more aggressive action.

“The city can’t discipline because it has never disciplined,” said Dave Bicking with the Minneapolis-based Communities United Against Police Brutality. “It’s a Catch-22.”

Holly Bailey in Minneapolis and Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.