Monday, September 05, 2016

For the record: the power of police unions is hazardous to lives

And that goes for liberal San Francisco.

I usually don't read New York Times editorials. I often agree with them. But, contrary to what the Gray Lady seems to believe, I think their editorial stance ordinarily serves as a trailing indicator, a distillation of where conventional liberal opinion has already arrived, and hence, not worth a few minutes in a busy day.

But sometimes I hope they still have influence. Sadly, for this Labor Day weekend, the New York Times has published an editorial, When Police Unions Impede Justice, that flags a perversion of trade unionism that afflicts too many lives.

Police unions are not unions of the generally understood sort: exploited workers combining to fight back against greedy, disrespectful owners.
SFPOA is not shy about its point of view.
Many (most?) police unions operate as protection rackets for their members, working politically to immunize cops from the most elementary constraints of law and justice. Many police departments, the ones that choose to empower bigots and the ones where local elites approve, act like marauding gangs. They afflict marginalized communities with legally permitted use of force against citizens with the "wrong" features or skin color. We know that; communities of color (and in their time queer communities) have been screaming about police abuse for decades. Every once in a while, an incident -- a beating or a killing -- is so outrageous that citizen complaints break through.

The NYT focuses on the city of Chicago's inability to discipline the officers who shot Laquan McDonald, 22 months ago.
As a task force appointed by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, noted in April, “The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the city have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.”

This absurdly slow process is a direct outgrowth of collective bargaining agreements that actually encourage officers to lie. The agreements bar investigators from questioning officers within the first 24 hours after a shooting, giving them time to coordinate their accounts. They micromanage investigations, limiting what interrogators can do. Beyond that, if an officer lies during an investigation, he or she cannot be charged with making a false statement unless the investigator presents the officer with a new set of allegations that specifically address the lie.

The labor agreements also discourage citizens from lodging misconduct complaints. Among other things, they prohibit most anonymous complaints, a problem in a city like Chicago, where the department has a history of brutality and even torture — and where citizens are understandably fearful of reprisal. As in other cities, officers in Chicago can challenge disciplinary findings in proceedings overseen by arbitrators, who frequently have a vested interest in pleasing the police unions so they can keep their jobs.
The Times doesn't go into why the cop unions are able win such protective contracts. In many instances, the police unions have won extreme protections for their members through local and state laws. That is, police officer associations (and often firefighter unions as well) are masters of manipulating local and state politicians.

Obviously police have many supporters, particularly from some of same constituencies that tend to support the Donald: disgruntled white people who "want their country back." But also, among elites -- Democratic and Republican -- there are plenty who welcome what they consider aggressive protection from "those people." Politicians listen. And so police unions pervert the job of representing their members into protection rackets for bigotry and violence.

In June in San Francisco, a "Blue Ribbon Panel" reported extensively on how the Police Officers Association (SFPOA) preserves its clout.

The POA sought to impede the work of the Panel, hoping to undermine its investigation.
Although the Panel was independent and was neither directed nor supervised by the DA, it was initiated by his office. Statements by the POA and its agents asserted throughout the investigation that this was “George Gascón’s Blue Ribbon Panel” and, as such, was biased against the SFPD. Former Chief Suhr called the Panel “political grandstanding” and POA consultant (and former POA President) Gary Delagnes wrote of Gascón, “We need to go after this guy hard.”
What the SFPOA was protecting was a contractual hiring process that lends itself to allowing relatives and friends of old school white cops into their exclusive club:
The Panel found that the SFPD Chief retains broad discretion over who the SFPD hires and who is promoted, and while more promotions are now going to officers of color and women than historically, racial and gender diversity at the SFPD has been stagnant over the past three years. ... nepotism and favoritism are a concern. ... As one interviewee explained, the SFPD is a “family business.” Similarly, another interviewee described the SFPD “as an East Coast department on the West Coast” because employees went to high school with one another, and their families are frequently related to one another or have some sort of personal relationship.
The SFPOA and allied California police unions have won state laws that make attempts to discipline officers laughably ineffectual. And SFPD practices also impede disciplinary efforts. The families and friends of dead citizens aren't laughing.
A series of laws govern the discipline of officers, notably California’s Police Officers Bill of Rights, which contains a one-year statute of limitations from the time a lieutenant, or officer of higher rank, receives notice of a violation to when the accused officer is formally served with discipline. If this process takes more than one year, the case will be time-barred.

Disciplinary hearings before the Chief and before the Commission are confidential. This law also contains various procedural protections for the officers, such as notice requirements and the right to a representative. ...

The lack of transparency into the internal discipline process—Internal Affairs Department (IAD) processes and actions are not tracked and/or recorded in any publicly available way—is a systemic problem. Unlike the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), IAD publishes no statistics about the number and types of cases it investigates, the percentage of complaints that are sustained, or any factual summaries of the complaints it investigates.

When the Panel requested that the SFPD provide it with the number of bias complaints investigated or sustained over the last five years, the SFPD could not respond to the request because it did not track this data. This lack of general transparency is inherently detrimental to fair and effective officer discipline, both because it hinders external oversight (formal or informal) and because it suggests a lack of self-evaluation through robust and regular audit or statistical analysis, which is essential to a police department’s effective discipline of its officers.

... a former SFPD employee stated that when chiefs made it clear that OCC or IAD interviews were not important or that discipline cases would not be tracked or followed-up, officers routinely skipped interviews and held less respect for the disciplinary process.
San Francisco delegates (some) authority over the SFPD to a Police Commisson appointed by the Mayor with concurrence of the Board of Supervisors (our city council equivalent). But laws and contracts protecting cops prevent the Police Commission from exercising much control.
Over the past few years, the Police Commission’s policymaking strategy has evolved to build significant stakeholder input and community-engagement opportunities into the policymaking process. While the Commission has attempted to engage a variety of stakeholders, the POA continues to have power in the policymaking process that is disproportionate to that of other stakeholders.

Under relevant Memoranda of Understanding and collective bargaining laws, the POA is entitled to a meet-and-confer process with regard to proposed changes to Departmental General Orders [which prescribe police conduct], and, if meet-and-confer efforts fail to produce a negotiated resolution, the POA may pursue arbitration. Because the arbitration process is not time-limited and can take months to run its course, these so-called “impasse procedures” give the POA significant bargaining power, especially in circumstances where there is a sense of urgency around making policy revisions.

... The ability to delay important policy changes through the meet-and-confer process and impasse procedures, however, gives the POA disproportionate leverage in the policymaking process relative to other stakeholders and has produced outcomes that depart from policy recommendations built through the Commission’s community- engagement efforts.
That is, the Police Commission can hold however many feel-good hearings with community input it chooses, but the POA reserves the right to dictate the department's internal policies.

The POA defends its power to preserve the status quo by asserting 1) employing some number of officers who are of color, LGBT and/or women proves unequivocally that bias is a thing of the past and 2) that it donates to community organizations in marginalized communities.
For example, one current officer, also a defense representative for officers facing citizen complaints, stated that investigators for the Office of Citizen Complaints considered the diversity of a group of officers as evidence tending to disprove bias where one of the officers faced a discrimination complaint; the officer also stated that in his view, a diverse group of officers simply would not act in a biased manner. ...

The second justification these officers generally provided for their belief that institutionalized bias did not exist within the department was related to the POA’s financial grants to diverse community groups. These witnesses believed that the POA’s donations to communities of color disproved the idea that institutionalized bias could exist within the department.
And the POA penalizes cops who dare to say all is not well in the SFPD.
According to some witnesses, the POA and SFPD retaliate against and ostracize those who speak out against the department. ... In some cases, officers stated they feared for their physical safety....
Police officers perceive themselves (whether accurately or not) as working under dangerous conditions. If other officers can't be trusted to have your back, it's hard to rock the boat.

With its last police chief having precipitously departed after his officers killed five citizens in the last two years without consequences, San Francisco is in the process of hiring a new chief. The Police Commission (which does not hire but does make three recommendations to the Mayor) has held its usual community hearings. The POA seems to want Acting Chief Toney Chaplin in the job. Chaplin is Black. The POA likes hiring from within, from among officers who understand the unofficial rules that make the POA the boss. If elites were serious about reform, they would hire a law enforcement professional with experience turning around departments previously dominated by organized, murderous cops.

San Francisco seldom gets the national attention for its rogue police department that other big cities suffer from. After all, it is supposed to be the citadel of liberalism. Let's hope the New York Times editorial is a signal that liberal opinion is turning against cop unions getting to decide who is permitted to shoot freely in the communities they swear to "protect and serve."

And, on this Labor Day, let's hope the rest of labor doesn't succumb to a false "solidarity" with a  phony "union" that protects threats to their own members.

San Franciscans are struggling these days to rein in a police department which has killed five civilians in the last two years in circumstances in which officers' justifications for their use of force strain credulity. Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat, and Jessica Williams are dead. No officer has been charged or (as far as we know) disciplined. In fact, since 2000, the SFPD has killed 40 civilians; no officers have been charged. A culture of impunity in the SFPD is not new; in the over 40 years I've lived in this city, new cases involving officers mistreating residents have recurred over and over. Calls for reform seem to achieve little. I plan to write an occasional post "for the record" recalling some of this history.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

I'm investigating changes in how investigations are going to be done in the future in Hawaii. They will be at the state rather than the local level. The carnage is getting embarrassing.
More when I have time to look into this more carefully.
Hope all is well on the Vineyard!