Police Union Contracts

Collective bargaining is generally considered a good thing. All workers should have the opportunity to negotiate with employers to reach agreements on working conditions, benefits, and other aspects of workers’ compensation. However, some union contracts go beyond the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment.

Police union contracts have created a system of protections for police officers that amount to an alternate justice system, creating significant legal and structural barriers to accountability, transparency, and fairness. Of at least 4,024 people killed by police between 2013 and 2016, only 85 of these cases have led to an officer being charged with a crime. Only six of these situations have led to convictions – fewer than 0.2% of known police killings. Data from some of America’s largest police departments show that officers who commit misconduct rarely face administrative consequences, either. It is not surprising that police officers are seldom held responsible for their behavior, as provisions in police union contracts constitute de facto immunity from liability.

Collective bargaining agreements (i. e., contracts) are meant to allow due process: employees negotiate with an employer over matters of working conditions, compensation, benefits, and performance management as a group, thus increasing the employee’s collective bargaining power. These agreements ensure that workers are treated fairly, with dignity and respect. They are not meant to deny other citizens fairness, dignity, and respect. But they do. They refuse to each of the rest of us, especially African Americans, seeing justice as a result of police misconduct.

Campaign Zero, which describes itself as a “national platform of data-driven policy solutions to end police violence in America,” is trying to reduce the excessive power currently held by police unions.

After analyzing police union contracts in close to 600 cities, Campaign Zero noted six ways “police unions obstruct, delay or defeat local efforts to hold police accountable.”

The group reviewed 81 of America’s 100 largest cities’ police union contracts. Working with legal experts, advocates, and academics with expertise in this area, study leaders identified six areas where these contracts make it more difficult to hold police accountable for misconduct. Of the first 81 cities’ contracts reviewed, 72 cities included at least one of these barriers to police accountability.

These six problematic conditions are listed below.

1. Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete

2. Preventing interrogation police officers immediately after their involvement in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated

3. Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get before being interrogated

4. Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and the media to hold police accountable.

5. Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct, including paid leave for officers
while under investigation, paying legal fees, and the cost of settlements

6. Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file

Please note that Louisville’s police union contract (Breonna Taylor) had all six of these problematic provisions. Minneapolis (George Floyd) had four of the six (#2, #4, #5, and #6).

In April 2020, Virginia Passed HB 582, which repealed the 1993 ban on collective bargaining for public employees. Localities will be allowed to authorize public unionization in May 2021. We are concerned that unless the legislature places limitations on this unionization, the collective bargaining issues in police union contracts in Virginia will be expanded beyond working conditions, compensation, benefits, etc., to resemble how they look across the country. Characteristically they restrict our ability to hold police officers—and departments—accountable for misconduct, even murder.