The phrase “police union contracts” likely won’t appear in the U.S. Department of Justice report on the Chicago Police Department, set to be released this week. The DOJ has historically not made labor recommendations after its investigations of police practices.
But the contracts have become a focal point for civil rights groups, activists, and even some politicians since the 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald video that triggered the DOJ’s civil rights investigation. The video of Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting the black 17-year-old paralyzed the city with protests, toppled a police chief and state’s attorney, and renewed citywide calls for policing reform.
In the weeks after the video’s release, aldermen said for the first time that the labor contracts were a significant barrier to police accountability for misconduct. They promised to remove provisions that make it harder for the city to investigate and discipline officers.
Those promises will be put to the test this year as the city renegotiates its contracts with the four unions representing officers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains. Historically, the contracts have been negotiated behind closed doors by the city’s law department and approved unanimously by the City Council.
This time, however, a coalition of community and civil rights organizations say they plan to hold elected officials accountable and demand substantive contract reform.
“The public’s attention is on this,” said Karen Sheley, director of the Police Practices Project at the ACLU of Illinois, a member of the coalition that has been meeting in recent weeks to strategize about lobbying for reform. “[But] it’s not going to be possible unless people put pressure on their alderman and put pressure on the mayor to have a contract that demands real accountability.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed through other police reforms, most notably the creation of a new police oversight agency, but has so far remained silent on this issue.
If activists are successful, experts say it could be the first time that community members anywhere in the country have forced reforms to police union contracts; in this case, by removing provisions that often shield abusive officers at the expense of public trust and accountability.
The police unions will be formidable foes. Aldermen and the mayor rely on their endorsements and dollars during elections, and the union representing rank-and-file officers has already said it will fight any effort to eliminate decades-old provisions that protect police.
Removing these provisions could take years, said Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability who has written about union contracts.
“I think there’s momentum for reform, so there’s some grounds for optimism,” Walker said. “But it’s going to be a tough fight.”
“Turned the code of silence into official policy”
A scathing report released last April by the mayor’s handpicked Police Accountability Task Force didn’t mince words about the contracts.
“The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the City have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy,” the task force wrote.
The task force identified about a dozen provisions that it said discouraged citizens from filing complaints, made it easier for officers to lie in official reports, and made it harder for the city to identify and discipline officers who are responsible for misconduct.
For example, the contracts prohibit the filing of anonymous complaints, allow officers 24 hours after a shooting before they can be interviewed by investigators, give officers the right to amend their statements to investigators after reviewing video or audio evidence, and ban rewards for whistleblower officers.
The reform coalition is focusing on those same provisions and plans to use the task force report to build consensus for change among community members and aldermen.
Some aldermen say they are already on board.
“There are some things in the contract that hamper the public’s ability to have faith in their police and the honesty and integrity of some of the police officers,” said Ald. Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st), a former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.
But to force the city’s hand, aldermen will have to insist on getting a seat at the negotiating table, Brookins said.
“There has never been any aldermen in on the negotiations, so when we got [the contract], it was ‘Take it or leave it,’ ” he said. “I think with the public squarely on our side, it will embolden more aldermen to stand up and say, ‘If it’s take it or leave it, we’re gonna leave it,’ and make them go in and negotiate a better deal for the citizens of the city.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus, thinks it is unlikely that aldermen will get a seat at the negotiating table.
“You’re not going to have five aldermen sitting at the contract table representing different views. That’s not going to happen,” he said. “But I think we need to put together a list and say, ‘These are the concerns of the task force, these are the concerns of the citizens, and when you’re negotiating the contracts, these are the things you need to consider.’”
That would keep Emanuel in the driver’s seat of the negotiations. After a contract is negotiated, the first stop in City Council is the Workforce Development and Audit Committee, chaired by Emanuel’s floor leader Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th). O’Connor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
So far, aldermen have remained, as usual, on the outside. A law department spokesman said negotiations on the sergeants’, captains’ and lieutenants’ contracts, which expired last June, are still in an early stage and aldermen have not yet been briefed. Negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the majority of officers, have not begun. That contract expires in June.
“Bring the checkbook”
Many of the provisions now under fire were part of the first formal contract signed between the city and the FOP in 1981. Since Chicago police won collective bargaining rights, one of the union’s primary goals has been to preserve officers’ rights in the disciplinary process.
“The main purpose of the contract is to protect workers, just like any contract,” said Dean Angelo, Sr., president of Chicago’s FOP.
Before police had a contract, Angelo said, supervisors could transfer officers to an undesirable district or suspend them without justification. Provisions that require a signed affidavit on complaints and that limit the use of past disciplinary records in new investigations ensured that officers had due process, he said.
The city agreed to these protections in exchange for lower pay raises or other cost-saving measures.
“The bottom line for the city, when it comes to all of its employees, has typically been to keep its costs down as much as it conceivably can,” said Bob Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.
Now that the union has won these protections, it will be much more difficult to take them away, Bruno said.
“There’s a dynamic in collective bargaining that something that’s been won is a pretty expensive thing to give back,” he said.
Angelo has sent the same message.
“Bring the checkbook. That’s what I told the lawyer for the city,” he said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, when asked what it would take to remove the targeted provisions.
That could put the city between a rock and a hard place. On one side are the community groups that want policing reform and accountability. On the other side are taxpayers, who are still paying a record $543 million property tax increase to shore up the police and firefighter pension funds and are likely to be unwilling to pony up more money for the police department. The department already receives 40 cents of every dollar of the city’s operating budget.
Emanuel has yet to say how he plans to navigate the negotiations.
“We all have the same shared goal of protecting public safety, and ensuring the officers and command staff alike have the support they need to be effective at their work,” a spokeswoman for the mayor wrote in an emailed statement. “But we don’t negotiate through the press.”
Can community pressure work?
Chicago is not the first city where community groups have tried to influence police contract negotiations. So far, activists have not won.
One example comes from Portland, Oregon. Portland’s city council approved a new contract with the police last October, over the objections of community groups that opposed language giving the police union final say over a new body-camera policy.
The groups were caught off-guard when the contract was finalized more than eight months before the existing contract was set to expire.
Protesters tried to speak at the council meeting before the vote, but the council moved from its public chamber to a closed conference room and voted 3 to 1 to approve the contract while hundreds of activists chanted outside. Eventually, riot police used pepper spray on protesters and physically pushed them out of city hall.
Chicago’s reform coalition hopes that getting involved earlier in the negotiating process will result in a different outcome here.
“I think when we educate the public about the contract, it will put pressure on City Council to put pressure on the mayor and corporation counsel,” said Remel Terry, political action chair for the Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP, which is part of the coalition. Currently, the groups are circulating the list of targeted provisions to organizations and individuals, aiming to bolster support before bringing their case to aldermen and the mayor.
The police unions aren’t just going to roll over, though.
“Just because everyone is suddenly pointing fingers at the FOP, the FOP isn’t going to crawl on its knees and say, ‘We’ll take whatever you give us,’ ” Angelo said. “That’s not going to happen. This is a negotiation.”
Even if the activists are successful, it won’t necessarily make it easier to fire problem officers, said Catherine Fisk, a professor of labor law at the University of California at Irvine.
Fisk points to states like North Carolina and South Carolina, where public employees have no collective bargaining rights–and police misconduct still exists.
“I tend to be skeptical of the idea that if we just limited unions and limited job protections, we would get better workers,” she said.
In addition, some of the protections for officers in the disciplinary process are enshrined in state law, and would require action in Springfield to change.
Nonetheless, community groups plan to take their contract demands to City Hall in the coming weeks and months.
And if they don’t get what they want? Activists here have shown time and again, during the 13 months since the Laquan McDonald video came to light, that they are willing to take to the streets.
Disclosure: Community Renewal Society, the parent organization of the Chicago Reporter, is part of the coalition of groups organizing around the police union contracts.