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Campaign Zero Advocates for Police Accountability

The public outrage over the death of George Floyd while in police custody has fueled calls for police reform in a variety of areas, but one thing that has particularly infuriated reform advocates is the difficulty in getting bad cops fired. The advocacy group, Campaign Zero, has made this problem the center of its reform drive, and as public awareness grows, the effort is picking up steam and allies.

The most-often cited cause behind the difficulty in firing police officers is the power of police unions. Like many public sector unions, police unions operate quite differently from traditional organized labor. While they do negotiate for pay and benefits, the core of police union advocacy is the protection of its members from the consequences of their actions, including the organization of legal defense teams at the taxpayers’ expense.

Campaign Zero published a list of protections negotiated for by the union representing Derek Chauvin, the now-former officer accused of killing George Floyd, and the other officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. These protections include disqualifying complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident, not allowing officers to be interrogated immediately after an incident, giving officers access to information before an interrogation, and preventing information on past misconduct from being retained in an officer’s file on being made available to the public.

As a result, despite the fact that 500 Minnesota police officers were convicted of a crime over the last 25 years, three-quarters of them were never internally disciplined by their departments. It is literally easier to convict a policeman of a crime than to get him fired. Traditional labor coalitions, of which police unions are generally a part, have struggled with this discrepancy, but until recently, little has been done. The killing of Floyd, however, has galvanized the push for change in this area as well. In June 2020, the Seattle branch of the AFL-CIO formally expelled the local police union, and a petition is circulating to do the same at the national level.

Even when police officers get fired or convicted of a crime, the secrecy of police records allows them to sometimes relocate and reenter law enforcement. USA Today identified 32 police officers who were fired, convicted of a crime, or found guilty of serious misconduct but later went on to become police chiefs or sheriffs in other jurisdictions. These officers included sexual predators and perpetrators of domestic abuse, along with the more common withholding evidence and falsifying records.

Without a nationwide database of officer misconduct, crossing a state line offered those disgraced officers a clean slate.

To address these problems and other closely related issues, Campaign Zero has called for some basic police accountability reforms: (1) The removal of barriers to effective oversight and transparent misconduct investigations, (2) make officer disciplinary records part of a database accessible to other departments and the public, and (3) provide real financial accountability for officers and the departments they work for in instances where civilians are unjustly killed or injured.

These reforms will not solve all the problems that plague the American criminal justice system, but advocates believe the first critical step toward meaningful change is accountability.  


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