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Police unions have shielded their officers, experts say
03:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

One San Antonio police officer repeatedly used the n-word as he arrested a Black man for trespassing at a mall. Another told a man he could go free if he beat the officer in a fistfight. A third allegedly tried to give a homeless man a sandwich filled with dog feces. 

All of them were fired by the police chief. And all of them were rehired after an arbitrator overturned their dismissals – in a process laid out in the contract between the city and the powerful police union. 

In more than four out of 10 of the cases in which arbitrators ruled on officer terminations over the last decade, those firings were overturned, according to data provided by the San Antonio police department.

“We’ve seen too many cases where the arbitrator has overturned the chief’s decision when it’s as clear as day that that officer accused of misconduct should no longer be on the force,” Ron Nirenberg, the city’s mayor, told CNN. “It’s egregious.”

San Antonio is hardly an exception: Around the country, police unions have played a decisive role in shaping department policies and shielding bad cops from accountability, experts say. 

Now, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd have refocused national attention on police misconduct, unions representing officers are facing a wave of new scrutiny and an unprecedented political backlash.

More than 85% of police contracts in major cities around the country include language limiting oversight or discipline of officers, according to an analysis by Campaign Zero, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.

A demonstrator holds her hands up while she kneels in front of police on June 1, 2020 in Anaheim, California, during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd.

Often negotiated behind closed doors, contracts in some cases are approved by local politicians whose campaigns have been bankrolled by the same unions they’re dealing with.

And police unions have only grown in financial power in recent years: The total assets of 56 large city police unions jumped by almost a third between 2011 and 2017, according to a CNN analysis of IRS tax filing data. 

In the wake of Floyd’s death, however, the tide has started to turn, with some cities moving to reform their collective bargaining procedures and labor activists edging away from their police colleagues.

Stephen Rushin, a Loyola University Chicago law professor who has studied police unions and contracts, said a national rethinking of the role of police unions could have a significant impact in holding more cops accountable. 

“This moment feels different,” he said. “This could be a really important inflection point.”

How union contracts block accountability

In cities around the country, police officers are some of the most difficult government employees to fire thanks to favorable contract provisions negotiated by local unions. 

Contracts block accountability in various ways: Some ban civilian oversight or require disciplinary records to be destroyed. Others put limits on internal investigations, give officers advance notice for interrogations or require the city to pay if officers are held liable for misconduct in court. 

Rushin, who analyzed more than 650 police union contracts around the country, found in a 2019 paper that more than two thirds of the contracts forced police departments to go through an appeals process when they wanted to fire or discipline officers, placing the final decisions in the hands of arbitrators “selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer.” 

That means that even if those cities approve tough new regulations about use of force, for example, it could be hard to jettison cops who don’t follow the rules.

Those disciplinary procedures are negotiated in the contract bargaining process at the same time as issues like salaries, wages and benefits for officers, Rushin said. 

“Particularly in budget-strapped cities, when officials can’t meet the financial demands of the union, the concession they’re ultimately forced to make is on discipline,” Rushin said. “They can bury the disciplinary measures in the contract, and the public may not understand what it means, even as the monetary savings make the headlines.” 

Across the country, union-negotiated disciplinary procedures help keep officers with problematic records on the job. In Minneapolis, for example, only about 1.5% of complaints filed against officers resulted in suspensions, terminations or demotions between 2013 and 2019, according to a CNN analysis of data from the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review.

Officers even have been rehired after being fired for high-profile fatal shootings. In Miami, an arbitrator in 2014 ordered the police department to reinstate detective Reynaldo Goyos, who fatally shot an unarmed man in a shooting that a department review board ruled was “unjustified.” And in Oakland, officer Hector Jimenez won his job back in arbitration in 2011 after being fired for fatally shooting two unarmed men in separate incidents within a year, shooting one in the back.

Some research has suggested a relationship between law enforcement collective bargaining and misconduct. A University of Chicago study found that misconduct complaints against Florida sheriff’s deputies increased after they won the right to collectively bargain in 2003.

Police union leaders say the discipline rules they’ve won in contract negotiations are important to guarantee their members due process, and that officers deserve strong protections due to the danger and unpredictability of their jobs. 

“Police officers are under attack, and I think you’re going to see less people sign up for the job,” said Jeff Roorda, executive director of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which successfully stymied an attempt by the local district attorney to form an independent unit to probe police misconduct. “What we do is defend police officers’ due process rights, the same rights every American has.”

But other experts argue that police contracts are so favorable for officers largely because of the political power of unions and their influence among local elected officials.

“Police unions have much more protection than other government or other public unions,” said L. Song Richardson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine.

In several cities, officers have elected more bombastic leaders in recent years, thrusting their unions into culture war battles and strongly opposing reforms.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Minneapolis Police Union head Bob Kroll on stage during a campaign rally at the Target Center on October 10, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In Minneapolis, union president Bob Kroll has called the protests over Floyd’s death a “terrorist movement,” maligned Floyd for having a “violent criminal history,” and bragged that none of the three police shootings he’s been involved in has bothered him. 

And in Chicago, officers in May elected a new president, John Catanzara, who is one the most frequently-disciplined officers in the history of the department, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Even as he took office leading the city’s cops, Catanzara had been stripped of his own police powers, limiting when he can carry his gun and badge. The department is investigating him for filing a false or misleading police report against a former superintendent after Catanzara accused the superintendent of allowing protesters to block a highway in 2018.

Catanzara has previously been reprimanded and investigated for social media posts supporting President Donald Trump, which violated rules about officers making political statements on the job. And last month, Catanzara declared that any officer who kneeled in support of protesters while in their uniform could be kicked out of the union. 

A spokeswoman for Catanzara declined an interview request from CNN, and Kroll did not respond to a request for comment.

Why fired cops get hired again

Policing experts say that San Antonio’s union-negotiated contract is among the most favorable for a police union.

Texas law puts final decisions about officer discipline in the hands of arbitrators chosen in agreement between cities and unions and, in most cases, blocks the department from imposing discipline for any incident that took place more than 180 days earlier. San Antonio’s contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association goes farther, limiting past incidents arbitrators can take into account when deciding whether to uphold punishments.

Other provisions in the contract restrict interrogations of officers during internal affairs investigations and, in some cases, allow cops to avoid a suspension of up to 45 days if they forfeit accumulated vacation, bonus time or holiday leave.

Of 24 officer terminations since 2010 that were ruled on by arbitrators, 10 were overturned, or about 42%, according to the department’s data, which was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News. 

In 12 other termination cases, officers resigned or retired before the case went before an arbitrator, and in 20 other cases the chief settled with officers, allowing them to come back with a reduced punishment. Those settlements often come at the advice of the department’s lawyers, and some are entered into because of the likelihood an arbitrator would overturn a termination, a SAPD spokesman said.

Out of 81 police contracts analyzed by Campaign Zero, San Antonio’s is one of just six that contain language limiting accountability in all of the areas the group tracked. Rushin’s analysis also found it to be “one of the most deferential to law enforcement interests,” he said. 

The contract was approved by an 8-2 majority on the city council in 2016, over objections from local activists, who said the discipline language made it a sweetheart deal for police.

According to Texas campaign finance data, the San Antonio union’s political action committee has spent more than $2.3 million since 2010, including more than $300,000 in direct contributions to political candidates. The group had previously made donations to half of the city council members who voted for the 2016 contract, as well as the mayor who negotiated it.

William McManus, the police chief, called the contract’s limits on discipline frustrating.

“To have an arbitrator undermine the chief’s authority to determine what is best for their department and their community contributes to the notion that there is no police accountability,” he said in a statement.

But union president Mike Helle said the process defended officers from being subject to the chief’s “whims.”

“There’s nobody on this police department that wants a policeman that’s bad because it tarnishes all of us,” Helle told CNN. “The only thing that we have negotiated for and we continue to hope for is that we just have a fair process.”

The bad cops ‘need to be off the street’

Over the years, San Antonio arbitrators have overturned terminations for eyebrow-raising examples of misconduct, even when none of the facts were in dispute. 

In July 2018 body camera audio captured Officer Tim Garcia repeatedly using the n-word as he arrested a Black man for trespassing at a local mall. A review board recommended Garcia be fired, and McManus moved to “indefinitely suspend” him from the force. 

At Garcia’s disciplinary hearing in 2019, McManus called his behavior “the most inappropriate language I have ever heard used during an arrest,” according to arbitration records. But the arbitrator, Thomas Cipolla, disagreed with the punishment, reducing Garcia’s sentence to a 10-month unpaid suspension and sending him back to the force.

“One diatribe does not automatically denote a racist,” Cipolla wrote in the ruling. “I find myself coming to the conclusion that (Garcia) was off that day and said some awful things he should not have said and is now sorry for them.”  

Garcia, who is still on the force, declined to comment through a police spokesman, but the union has vocally defended him, with Helle telling the Express-News last month that using the n-word was as offensive as Mayor Nirenberg using the word “goddamn” in a recent speech about police violence.

“Throughout anybody’s career, they’re gonna make mistakes,” Helle told CNN, saying Garcia “couldn’t apologize more.”

Other officers had their terminations overturned after bizarre behavior. Officer Matthew Belver was fired in 2016 after a dashboard camera captured him removing an arrestee’s handcuffs and making him an offer: If he beat him in a fight, he could go free. The arrestee declined.

In arguing for Belver’s termination, the department pointed to another 2010 incident in which he allegedly challenged another arrestee to a fight and then punched him in the face. But the police contract negotiated by the union bars the department from invoking years-old cases to justify firings, except under certain circumstances – a provision the arbitrator noted in his decision reducing the 2016 firing to a 45-day unpaid suspension. Belver, who declined to comment, is still on the force but is required to ride with a partner at all times, a department spokesman said.

Officer Matthew Luckhurst was fired in 2016 after admitting he put dog feces between a slice of bread and left it near a homeless man. The man didn’t eat it, but another officer testified that Luckhurst had later spread rumors that he force-fed the man the sandwich, according to the arbitration ruling, and the chief concluded his behavior was “inhumane.” 

The arbitrator reduced Luckhurst’s punishment to a five-day suspension because it took the chief more than 180 days to impose discipline in the case. But Luckhurst was fired again just a few weeks after his first termination for another poop-related incident: smearing a brown “boba tea smoothie” on the seat of the only toilet in the women’s locker room of a police station, according to arbitration documents. That decision was upheld by an arbitrator last month. Luckhurst did not respond to a request for comment.

Some officers have faced termination only to be returned to the force again and again. One lieutenant, Lee Rakun, was fired six times over his more than two-decade career at the department for offenses ranging from racist statements to dating violence allegations, CNN affiliate KSAT and the Express-News reported. Again and again, the chief settled to bring him back or an arbitrator reinstated him.

Rakun retired from the force earlier this year as part of his last disciplinary settlement, the department said. In a text message, Rakun declined to comment on his disciplinary record but argued that the union’s contracts were fair and noted that “many of these city officials clamoring for ‘police reform’ likely have their signatures on these agreements time after time.”

In other cases, the police chief reversed his own decision to terminate officers while facing pressure from the union and the prospect of being overturned by an arbitrator.

In February 2016 Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, an unarmed Black man, after mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun. McManus initially moved to suspend Lee indefinitely.

Two weeks later the police union began voting on a “no confidence” motion against McManus. The same day, KSAT reported, McManus changed his mind and allowed Lee to return to the force after additional training. A department spokesman said the chief’s reversal was not in response to the no confidence vote but was “made to afford (Lee) due process with respect to his rights under the collective bargaining agreement.”

Lee never faced criminal charges over the shooting. Scott’s widow and mother sued the city and Lee, and the case is ongoing. Lee resigned from the department in February, and a lawyer representing him did not respond to a request for comment. In court documents, Lee’s attorney has argued that he is protected by qualified immunity, a legal protection that is often used to block lawsuits against police officers.

The city’s police contract expires next year. Gregory Hudspeth, the president of the local San Antonio NAACP branch, said that most San Antonians didn’t seem to pay much attention to the contract when it was negotiated four years ago – but that he and other activists were preparing to shine a stronger spotlight on the issue during the upcoming negotiations.

“The bad officers need to be off the street, or we’re going to have an incident like the George Floyd case here,” he said. The current arbitration system, Hudspeth said, seems to be designed to “wait until an officer causes someone’s death before they say it’s worth terminating him.”

What’s happening now to improve police accountability

As anger has grown over police use of force in recent weeks, some cities are chipping away at police unions’ bargaining and political powers.

In Minneapolis, chief Medaria Arradondo announced last month he was withdrawing from contract negotiations with the union. Washington, D.C., passed a new ordinance removing disciplinary rules from the scope of collective bargaining. And Chicago put in place new reforms allowing anonymous complaints in a contract with police supervisors signed last week.

Dozens of elected officials around the country have also signed onto a national pledge to reject donations from the Fraternal Order of Police, a national police union affiliated with many of the largest local police unions. In Austin, for example, the mayor and all 10 members of the city council said last month they would not accept contributions from the local police union. 

Some other labor groups are moving to distance themselves from police unions. In Seattle, a county labor council voted to expel the city’s police union from its membership last month, saying the union wasn’t “actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large.” The union responded in a statement that the decision “should sound the alarm to other public safety labor unions across our region, state and nation that they’re next.” 

Nationally, the board of labor giant AFL-CIO called last month for the resignation of Kroll and supported the Seattle group. But the union’s board said it would not cut ties with police unions it is affiliated with, arguing in a statement that “police officers, and everyone who works for a living, have the right to collective bargaining.” 

“We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them,” the board wrote. 

In the wake of the backlash, some police unions are moving to propose their own reforms to the profession – a possible bid to head off more sweeping changes.

The police unions of Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco released a national reform plan last month laying out proposals like a database of officers fired for gross misconduct, a use of force standard that emphasizes de-escalation and more broadly available data on police use of force. 

“No words can convey our collective disgust and sorrow for the murder of George Floyd,” the unions wrote in a newspaper ad announcing the proposals. “We have an obligation as a profession and as human beings to express our sorrow by taking action.”

But local activists say their suggestions don’t go far enough.

“They’re just trying to be pre-emptive before communities come up with something more restrictive to them,” Neva Walker, executive director of a San Francisco community organizing group, said of the California unions. “It’s not about the individual officers – it’s about changing the whole system.”

CNN’s Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed to this report.