by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.
Can you imagine a community where police abuse arbitration hearings and misconduct cases resulted in costs to taxpayers numbering in the millions of dollars, only to realize that these same unruly and abusive officers, though found guilty, are not only rehired back by the very police force they betrayed, but are returned to the very duty position they held when they committed their infraction?
Sadly, it doesn’t take much imagination. Because for more than 60 years, we, as a nation, have tolerated a “good-ole-boy” network of police abuse, misconduct, and cover-up.
This system of arbitration and review of disciplinary actions for police misconduct is the result of expansion of police union power, initially propelled by the racist backlash to civil rights protests of the 1960s.
According to an investigative expose by researchers, including journalists and law professors, working for The New York Times reviewed “hundreds of cases of police disciplinary arbitration decisions, court cases, and police contracts stretching back decades, and interviewed more than 150 former [police] chiefs and officers, law enforcement experts, and civilian oversight board members.”
Consider the case of Detroit officer Stanley Kropik. In November of 2015, Kropik attempted to pull-over an orange Dodge Charger he suspected of having eluded him at a traffic stop 11 days earlier. The driver took off, and Kropik began a reckless pursuit “onto sidewalks, through red lights, and onto the freeway, exceeding 110 miles an hour.”
Official policy does not allow high-speed pursuits of suspects for traffic offenses, so Officer Kropik, according to records of the incident, falsely claimed he had seen the driver attempting to conceal something. Kropik called for backup, though a supervisor ordered officers to end the pursuit—apparently, Kropik ignored the order.
Shortly afterwards, and as a result of Kropik’s high-speed pursuit, the Charger hit another car on the freeway, killing an innocent driver, Jeff McGill. Records show Kropik commented to another officer at the scene of the crash, and while laughing at the driver’s misfortune, that he wanted the Charger’s driver “bad.”
Police Chief James Craig said the pursuit was a breach of policy, and a subsequent internal affairs’ report stated that Kropik unnecessarily “placed hundreds of lives in danger.”
Kropik was recommended for suspension without pay and referred for prosecution on the basis of misconduct while on duty—a felony. The police review board, however, acquiesced to internal pressure and eventually refused to take action against Kropik. Absent any official sanctions, a judge later dismissed the charge against the officer. Kropik was back on patrol not long after, having only “suffered” a brief suspension with pay.
The lesson to be considered from Kropik’s case is that police officers who engage in misconduct—the so-called “bad apples”—are shielded from any real consequences because of a system subject to negotiations with powerful police unions. These “good-ole-boy” protections did not come about by accident. They are the product of an often racially motivated narrative of a contrived “police victimhood” that gained traction during the civil rights protests and riots of the 1960s.
The summer of 1967 was a tumultuous time in America. Black residents, especially in the larger inner-cities, were victims of police brutality and widespread racist actions and policies. Predominantly all-white police forces no longer resembled the friendly beat cops of The Andy Griffith Show, but rather that of an occupying force.
Detroit saw some of the worst violence with 43 people dying during the unrest. The Detroit Police Officers Association capitalized on the situation—partly resulting from a 1962 law allowing federal workers to collectively bargain, and opening the door for the country’s first ever comprehensive police contract. The union sought high pay and leniency within the disciplinary process. As a veiled threat, the Officer’s Association offered to only “restore order” if their demands were met.
“They were really grasping at anything that sounded like a persuasive argument for their target audience,” suggested, Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Their audience was white voters who were afraid of crime.”
A month after the riots, the union won big. Detroit officers became amongst the highest-paid in the country, and police commissioners would be restricted from meting out discipline—a process now to be handled by arbitrators. Arbitration quickly spread to other cities as newly formed unions elsewhere negotiated with city management. Police abuse became commonplace and almost wholly ignored. Thus, began a slow creep—police unions using politically charged moments to obtain better and better deals for officers, eventually eroding real accountability for anything but the most egregious conduct.
The 1970s brought about a renegotiation of the contract, adding provisions for “privacy protection,” preventing release of disciplinary reports, and limiting records to three years if there had been no subsequent infractions. By 1992, after the inner-city “War on Crack” was in full effect, review boards were eventually relegated to a two-year limit on disciplinary records, regardless of the number of subsequent incidents. Police accountability, as another casualty of the “War on Drugs,” was virtually “out the window.”
Sheryl Sculley, who was city manager in San Antonio for 14 years, explained that the city often lost in arbitration because arbitrators were only shown incidents from the past two years despite, in some cases, a career full of disciplinary infractions. “The arbitrator makes a decision that this was an officer’s one-time mistake,” she explained. “[W]e wouldn’t present the full picture because the laws didn’t allow us to.”
By 1977, Maryland passed the first “officer’s bill of rights”—again, an initiative that would eventually be adopted in many cities and states elsewhere, and which, among other provisions, gave officers a 10-day waiting period before they were required to provide a statement about a possible infraction. This policy allowed errant officers to concoct a plausible defense for even the most serious breach of policy or the most heinous misconduct.
The result of such leniency was that police chiefs and city managers were forced live with a system that prevents them from terminating bad officers, even in cases where the evidence is overwhelming. Sam Adams, the former mayor of Portland lamented, “how little control we had,” in commenting about his own police force with a history of brutality against its residents. “This was as bad a part of government as I’d ever seen,” said Adams. “The government gets to kill someone and get away with it.”
Until the advent of the smartphone and the ubiquity of viral video footage of police brutalizing and even killing people, most Americans were unaware of such police behavior and would likely have refused to believe it without the damning video evidence. It took the killing of George Floyd, and the nationwide protests that followed, to serve as the catalyst to begin reversing the process of half a century of ignored accountability. In the wake of the protests, 42 of the nation’s largest 50 cities changed policies regarding police oversight—an initiative that seemed like it happened almost overnight yet was 60 years in the making.
At the height of the protests in Portland, the police chief (a white women) stepped down, naming Chuck Lovell, a top lieutenant and a Black man, to take her place and begin the process of “healing” the city.
Lovell has cited the difficulty in changing the way police operate after decades with little or ineffective oversight while asking for patience. He has commented that he can’t “magically” step in and “fix the things that have been problems for many, many, many years or decades in an instant.”
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