In Minneapolis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo quickly fired the officers involved in the death of George Floyd. But very few chiefs have this ability. In my time as a chief in Michigan, Colorado and Florida, I never did, thanks to a combination of state and local laws, union contracts, and past labor precedents.
Much more typical is this scenario: A cop commits serious misconduct. The chief suspends him immediately. Often, the cop still gets paid to sit at home, because this is legally required. Internal affairs investigates, but the process is delayed by exasperating legal and contract hurdles. Meanwhile, the community stews: Why hasn’t the chief fired him?
Finally, the chief has the evidence to act. If merited, the cop is fired. Months have gone by, but that was the easy part. Now the cop will appeal — because the review process is staggeringly favorable to bad cops.
The case goes either to an arbitrator or to a panel, a “civil service commission” appointed by the city council. The arguments are always the same: The chief’s investigation was shoddy; the chief had a vendetta against this particular cop; other cops did this before and weren’t fired; the alleged misconduct wasn’t really that bad. Too often, arbitrators feel the pressure to “split the baby” in their decisions. Perhaps the cop is docked pay or demoted; otherwise, he’s back on patrol.
In some states, legislatures have codified these protections in what’s called a “peace officer’s bill of rights.” As I saw in Florida, an officer accused of wrongdoing is interviewed only at the end of the investigation. State law guarantees him, and his lawyer, an opportunity to review every bit of evidence — every witness statement, any video, all the physical evidence — before he talks to internal affairs. This enables the officer to cast his actions in the best possible light — even to lie about what happened, once he knows the evidence will not disprove the lie. In subsequent arbitration, this becomes a critical tactical advantage.
In Colorado, there was no such guarantee — and the cultural difference in the departments I oversaw was striking. In Florida, trustworthiness was a challenge. In Colorado, officers generally did not lie to internal affairs — and, what’s more, they helped keep one another honest.
But that didn’t mean it was easy to get rid of underperforming cops. In nearly nine years as chief in Aurora, Colo., I had 16 cops out of 650 whom I felt should be fired. Four I actually did fire. The Civil Service Commission promptly reversed me on three of them. So with the other 12 cops, I bent over backward to negotiate their departures with creative severance packages. I succeeded in getting them out — with deals that protected the city from litigation — but these agreements also allowed the cops to get jobs elsewhere if they could.
And those are just the disappointments the public can see. Another insidious cost of union intransigence is in the battles not fought. Arbitrations suck the life out of a police chief: Instead of fighting crime or building community trust, you’re huddled with lawyers, practicing testimony, memorizing evidence. You’re also weighing the likely outcomes of battling the union. Win the arbitration, and your ethical standard is upheld for all your cops to see. Lose, and the union will trash your integrity and leadership.
You also realize that the union is superb at lobbying over your head to elected officials. “We can’t work with this chief. He’s unfair on discipline,” they complain. You learn there are only so many fights to take on. On a case where you know the cop should get a healthy suspension, you agree to a written reprimand. The high standards you expect for the agency suffer.
These constraints are democratically imposed — by voter-approved city charters or elected city councils or state legislatures, all too easily swayed by unions and their donations and votes. The good news is that this means reform-minded voters have a say, too. We can elect leaders with the courage to change the laws and labor agreements that are killing accountability in policing. Unions will claim that the reforms deny cops due process, but this doesn’t have to be true: In every department I served in, simple improvements could have reasonably ensured fairness for both police officers and their employers — the public.
I love cops. The vast majority are heroes who sacrifice every day to protect you, me and the next George Floyd. They embrace high ethical standards. They are repulsed by Floyd’s death.
Help them. Vote. Empower our police chiefs to hold cops accountable. They will lead the reform America is demanding.