Police unions could create barrier to reform

Good Government

Curtis Shelton | June 16, 2020

Police unions could create barrier to reform

Curtis Shelton

Few cases show the need for union reform more than Laquan McDonald’s death. In 2014 McDonald was killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Officers initially claimed that McDonald charged them after being approached over vehicle break-ins, forcing Van Dyke to shoot McDonald in self-defense. Subsequent dash-cam footage showed this to be untrue, and that Van Dyke shot McDonald, who appeared to be walking away, sixteen times in fourteen seconds.

Since 2001 more than 20 civilian complaints had been filed against Van Dyke, which was more than 96.7 percent of all Chicago police officers. Van Dyke had also never faced disciplinary action. A research article out of the Duke Law Journal provides empirical evidence that police union collective bargaining agreements can create barriers for officer accountability. 

The research article identifies seven CBA provisions that could create disciplinary problems. These include provisions like delaying the investigation of officers suspected of misconduct, limiting the consideration of disciplinary history, and permitting or requiring arbitration. The research found that 88 percent of CBAs in the 178 cities had at least one problematic provision.

Tulsa and Oklahoma were each found to have two of these provisions. Oklahoma City had provisions that limit civilian oversight and provide for arbitration. Tulsa also provides for arbitration and limits the consideration of disciplinary history.

Civilian oversight gives the public another level of transparency when discussing officer misconduct and can encourage citizens to register complaints against officers. Limiting the consideration of disciplinary history may  deter accountability for police officers. Allowing for the use of historical records could have helped identify problem officers like Van Dyke earlier before a tragic situation occurred. Allowing for arbitration in disciplinary matters often leads to a reduction in penalties levied against offices found guilty of professional misconduct and can create binding decisions that limit judicial review. 

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department there have been mass protests across the country calling for change. If all that changes are the names on buildings, then we have lost the opportunity for real change. While policy solutions alone will not be enough to solve the issue of racism, they can provide substantive change through increased accountability and trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Curtis Shelton Policy Research Fellow

Curtis Shelton

Policy Research Fellow

Curtis Shelton currently serves as a policy research fellow for OCPA with a focus on fiscal policy. Curtis graduated Oklahoma State University in 2016 with a Bachelors of Arts in Finance. Previously, he served as a summer intern at OCPA and spent time as a staff accountant for Sutherland Global Services.

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