Do police unions protect bad cops? How do collective bargaining agreements keep bad cops on the job? Where is there room for reform in this aspect of police departments? Charlyce Bozzello, communications director at the Center for Union Facts, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to break it down.
We also cover these stories:
- President Donald Trump says he will challenge Nevada’s decision to send mail-in ballots to every resident in the state before the November election.
- The president signs an executive order that will put green card holders and U.S. citizens ahead of foreign workers for high-skilled contract work.
- House Democrats subpoena four of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s top aides.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Charlyce Bozzello. She’s the communications director at the Center for Union Facts. Charlyce, it’s great to have you on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Bozzello: Thanks, Rachel. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Del Guidice: Well, thanks for making time to come on. Your organization just launched a national education campaign regarding police unions and their collective bargaining agreements that protect bad cop behaviors. So, Charlyce, before we dive into everything here, can you give us a quick refresher on what collective bargaining agreements are?
Bozzello: Sure. So, every union has a collective bargaining agreement with their employer, and when it comes to police unions, the employer is, obviously, the state or the locality or whatever government that they’re operating under. And so those agreements sort of define the rules and the standards that the police officers or whoever else falls into the bargaining agreement are held to.
They also oftentimes, with police especially, they have certain rules that make it difficult for the state or the locality or whatever it might be to reprimand police officers.
Del Guidice: And so on that, how do collective bargaining agreements protect bad cops? What are ways that these things basically shield them in ways that is not helpful?
Bozzello: … There’s a growing pool of evidence that shows police unions and these collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, they help keep the bad cops on the beat. They use lengthy appeals processes, they keep disciplinary records hidden, or sometimes just thwart reasonable discipline altogether, and otherwise just have these provisions that only serve to embolden violent police officers.
Now, it’s not really anything new for unions to impose provisions that protect their members at essentially any cost. We’ve seen this with teachers unions for years. They have provisions in their agreements that make it very difficult to fire underperforming teachers, and ultimately, students are the ones who suffer for it.
But in the case of police unions, a similar thing is being done but the stakes are even higher when you have years of virtually unchecked misconduct that could lead to violence and even death in some cases, as we have seen, especially recently.
Del Guidice: That’s actually the next question I was going to ask you about. How big is the problem of bad cops? And as you mentioned briefly, we’ve seen a lot of discussion surrounding this issue in light of the death of George Floyd on May 25. How big and widespread of a problem is this?
Bozzello: I think it’s more of there are a minority of bad cops out there. The vast majority of cops are great, but it’s their police union contracts that make it very difficult to hold the small amount [that] are bad accountable. And then that can lead to potentially violent cops staying on the streets, meaning there’s a better chance that another tragedy could occur that not only incites anger toward police overall, but drastically diminishes the morale of good cops and makes it harder for them to do their jobs.
So I don’t know if you would say that this is, in precincts across the country, there are just millions of bad cops waiting to strike. I don’t think that’s the case at all. But when a violent cop is allowed to stay on the beat long enough for something truly tragic to happen, it gets the sort of national play, rightfully so, people are outraged.
So even if it’s a minority of cops that aren’t being held accountable, it becomes a huge issue, especially when it does lead to these sort of violent deaths or murders in many cases.
Del Guidice: Well, the national education campaign that you started includes the website policeunionfacts.com. Can you highlight some of the most important points on this site?
Bozzello: Sure. I think one important thing to understand, and it’s one of the more shocking statistics, in my opinion, is that many police union contracts actually include extremely lengthy appeals processes for officers that are accused of misconduct. So that just means if an officer is initially fired for misconduct, they can, and actually oftentimes will, get rehired.
One particularly surprising study looked at 656 police union contracts and it found that the median contract actually gave officers up to four layers of appellate review, and then that was typically followed by another appeal to a third-party arbitrator. And in more than half of those cases, the officer being accused was actually allowed input as to who that arbitrator was.
So, I mean, this is in countless police union contracts and it really stacks the deck in favor of police officers, even if they were rightfully dismissed originally.
And then in addition to that, these kinds of contracts just include tons of provisions that could thwart very reasonable and sometimes necessary discipline.
Some of them include provisions like limiting officer interrogations, mandating the destruction of disciplinary records, banning civilian oversight, preventing anonymous civilian complaints, and limiting the length of internal investigations.
So another study found that at least 80% of the contracts that were studied contained at least one of these types of provisions that could thwart legitimate discipline.
I just think of it this way, could you imagine if the same rules applied to criminals or somebody who is even on a criminal trial? I mean, it would be obstruction of justice. Yet police unions don’t really seem to mind that there’s this double standard when it comes to their own members.
And Bloomberg actually recently did a similar study of police union contracts and found that 43% provided for the removal of reprimands that had been added to an officer’s personnel file after any given length of time.
That’s something that happens a lot, too, where these contracts include provisions, where whether it’s one year, maybe it’s five years, after that set amount of time, the misconduct record will just vanish from a police officer’s personnel record.
And if that’s not bad enough, we also highlight that oftentimes records are just hidden from other police departments.
There was a particularly tragic case in Cleveland, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He had previously resigned from his police department. He was about to be fired for being deemed unfit to serve, but he sort of beat them to the punch and left.
But when he moved over to the Cleveland department, he did not have to disclose his reason for leaving his former job and therefore, they didn’t know that they were hiring a potentially violent cop who had already been deemed unfit to serve, and then it ultimately led to the death of this young man.
And there are countless other cases that we do have listed on the site where in a very tragic death by a police officer, they actually had a lot of misconduct complaints against them ahead of time. And it just seems as though their police union contracts were really a big roadblock in holding them accountable and keeping them off the streets until it was too late.
Del Guidice: Charlyce, you had mentioned that one stat about how 88% contain at least one provision that could thwart legitimate discipline. Looking at these problems, how does this happen to begin with? Where’s the breakdown when it comes to reporting these issues and then acting on it so they’re not repeated?
Bozzello: Sure. I think a large part of it is that police unions typically lobby very aggressively to keep these records hidden from the public. I do believe it’s just this huge lack of transparency. For instance, as I mentioned before, a lot of police officers who had a bunch of misconduct complaints against them, and eventually we didn’t find out until a killing had occurred.
That’s not something that should be happening, but police unions are really fighting tooth and nail to keep those types of records hidden.
A really good example of this is … Well, … it should be said, first of all, that we now know that the police officer who killed George Floyd had 18 misconduct complaints against him before the murder occurred.
And so another well-known killing by a New York police officer in 2014, officer Daniel Pantaleo, he used the chokehold against Eric Garner, resulting in Garner’s death.
Thanks to Section 50-A of the New York Civil Rights Law, it basically shrouds police officer personnel and disciplinary records in secrecy. So we didn’t know at the time that [Pantaleo] actually had, I believe it was seven disciplinary complaints against him and 14 individual allegations prior to Garner’s death. That was all kept very secret.
And it wasn’t even until 2019 that he was fired for this action. And even now, right now, the Police Benevolent Association, which is the union in New York, is helping sue for his job back.
The police union fought very aggressively against any repeal or changes to 50-A. Until recently they were victorious, but the state has actually now repealed 50-A, but that has also not stopped the union from suing the state to tie up these police personnel records in a lawsuit. So they’re still doing everything they can to stop this transparency from getting out there.
A similar thing happened in California. A 2018 law to increase transparency for police officer records was met with a huge fight from the state’s police unions, several departments even responded by shredding years of records. That included records of police shooting investigations.
So it’s really the police unions that are fighting against this transparency. I believe that’s the first issue that we need to combat. When we’re able to know about the history of the police officers that are on the street that are keeping us safe, I think that’s one important step to making sure that these types of things don’t happen in the future.
Del Guidice: Policeunionfacts.com mentions the JUSTICE Act, which is a police reform bill currently being considered by Congress. What is the JUSTICE Act and what does it do?
Bozzello: … There’s a lot of reform bills going around right now, which is wonderful. We definitely are seeing bipartisan support for this issue. And it’s sort of become a question of not do we need reform, but what kind of reform, how are we going to go about it?
So a few things the JUSTICE Act does very well is sort of speaking to this transparency issue that I laid out before. It has some specific provisions that would require reporting of violent tactics that are used by police officers.
This would include no-knock warrants, which are essentially when an officer is serving a search warrant they cannot announce themselves or not knock first before they go in. [This is] just another controversial tactic that police officers use.
But it would also require state and local governments that receive certain federal funding to, quote, “Maintain a system for sharing disciplinary records of law enforcement officers.”
So that’s the kind of system we’re lacking right now. And this system would be accessible to other law enforcement agencies. It could be accessible from one department to another, one precinct to another. Individual officers would have the ability to see their own records and to submit related information if they felt they needed to. But before hiring any law enforcement officer, these agencies would be required to search the system and review any other records.
So the issue of police unions keeping disciplinary records shielded or hidden from the public or keeping misconduct records from bouncing from department to department would be essentially taken care of.
It would also make it a criminal offense to knowingly and willfully falsify a report. That’s another issue that’s come up a lot, especially in these controversial killings where we can see with our eyes, it’s been recorded what happened, but the police report doesn’t actually reflect a lot of the detail.
A lot of people mentioned a sort of culture of silence among police officers. They don’t want to hold their fellow officers accountable. They don’t want to put those types of things in writing. But it would actually make it a criminal offense to not accurately write a report. And this would have a little bit of some teeth too, there would be a penalty for violating it, that could be as little as a fine or up to even 20 years in prison.
And then just a little bit beyond that, the JUSTICE Act would also create a couple of commissions that would really be dedicated to investigating issues and proposing reform.
I think it would really seek to collect data and promote transparency in the many areas of policing where solutions aren’t yet super obvious or where solutions sort of vary based on state, based on locality.
We definitely don’t want a situation where police officers can’t do their jobs and can’t protect their communities based on a law, but we do need to promote transparency. We do need to fight against these provisions in police union contracts that prevent us from holding bad cops accountable, especially when violence is involved.
Del Guidice: Charlyce, what about the argument from some that police officers need unions, particularly those in cities where good officers are affected by very liberal mayors and/or city council numbers where some feel that police unions are the only thing standing between that?
Bozzello: Sure. So, this is definitely one of the main talking points, especially of police unions. When they repealed 50-A in New York, the police union, the head of the PBA there was definitely telling everyone that cops would be put in danger by this if their disciplinary records were made public. And it’s certainly a valid concern. However, there’s not a ton of compelling evidence to suggest that cops would be in more danger if their disciplinary records were made public.
There’s actually a very interesting forthcoming survey in the Cardozo Law Review that looked into this and it found very little evidence that public access to misconduct records would endanger officers. In fact, it surveyed hundreds of law enforcement administrators, they were primarily police chiefs, sheriffs, and they actually found that these administrators said access to public records of police disciplinary records and misconduct would be beneficial to their departments and their communities, much more so than it would be harmful to officers.
It’s also worth noting that when these types of records are made public, it’s not an unbridled release of personal information on this police officer. It doesn’t include their address, it won’t include their contact information. So it’s not like we’re putting their private information out there to the public.
Also, … we recently did some polling on this issue, and one of the responses actually speaks pretty well to this.
We said to people taking the survey, “Police union contracts often include provisions that make it difficult to fire police officers who have complaints lodged against them. Unions say that these policies are necessary to protect police officers from unfair targeting. Do you think it’s more important to protect all police officers or more important to make it easier to get bad cops off the force?”
And an overwhelming 68% of people said they believed it was more important to get bad cops off the force. So I think given all of that, I don’t know if you can make it a real case that police officers are in more danger if these records are made public.
Del Guidice: Lastly, Charlyce, what other opportunities for reform do you see available that people should try to pursue?
Bozzello: I think that certain states and localities are definitely looking into the police union issue. Minneapolis left its collective bargaining agreement with the police department and it’s possible that other cities will be emboldened to do the same, or at least to take a much closer look at their collective bargaining agreement.
I think these things are often best done at the local level when you can really sit down with the stakeholders in the area and sort of figure out what’s best for the community. And barring that, like I said, I think legislation like the JUSTICE Act that really does want to focus on transparency and accountability will be the next step here.
And fortunately, I think there’s a lot of support around these efforts. I don’t think anyone will say that there doesn’t need to be transparency or accountability, especially in light of recent events. And police unions have escaped pretty serious criticism for a while and now it’s a good time to really look at the role they’re playing in keeping bad cops out there.
Del Guidice: Charlyce, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you.
Bozzello: Thank you so much for having me.