Police violence will end only when there are real consequences for bad cops – not just in the most extreme cases, but in all of the cases of unjustified police brutality. Unwarranted police violence happens regularly, but there are almost never any employment consequences for the officers. This is because in most cities, two types of protections are written into most police contracts that allow for routine abuses to be ignored and for repeat offenders to continue their misconduct.
First, police contracts commonly have protections to hide citizen complaints from the public eye. When there are allegations of abuse or misconduct against other types of government actors, those accusations are typically public. But when it comes to law enforcement, police contracts ensure that complaints of misconduct are a closely guarded secret, hiding the fact that there are rarely any consequences for repeat offenders or incompetent officers. The Guardian recently reported on hackers who broke into the website of the Fraternal Order of Police to look at police contracts (because most police contracts are unavailable to the public, even though police officers are public employees). It turns out that many of the hacked police contracts have clauses allowing or requiring the destruction of records of civilian complaints, departmental investigations, or disciplinary actions after a certain period of time (sometimes only a matter of months).
In that context, it should not be surprising to learn that many of the bad actors in the news had employment histories that make their news-worthy misconduct seem like par for the course for them, but that were unknown to the public. For instance, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who gunned down Laquan McDonald execution style, had at least 20 complaints of prior misconduct on the job. The Cleveland police officer who fatally shot Tamir Rice – within two seconds of approaching the child – had a personnel file that reported that he “could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.” In many states, when police officers commit sexual misconduct on the job, the complaints are not disclosed to the public. So Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who was recently convicted of raping women during traffic stops, had sexual abuse allegations against him from more than a dozen women.
Many police contracts also thwart accurate misconduct investigations. Police contracts commonly make sure that officers cannot be questioned about an incident like a shooting until after 24 hours have passed. The most obvious reason for having this protection is to make sure that the officers have time to get their story straight. It plays out in police brutality cases that officers on the scene conspire in that time to come up with a common justification for the misconduct. Imagine if criminal suspects had a 24 hour cooling off period to conspire with cohorts about potential alibis before they had to talk to police. The police would scream that it would allow suspects to avoid justice. The same, however, is true for police officers.
Finally, many contracts prevent independent review boards from evaluating the misconduct complaints, ensuring that the officers’ misconduct is only ever evaluated by brother and sister officers. The net result of all of the protections for police misconduct is that the public rarely learns about the complaints and the officers rarely suffer any consequences for abuses. For instance, during a two-year period Chicago police received 10,149 complaints of misconduct, which resulted in a whopping 19 meaningful disciplinary actions.
There needs to be more police accountability to the citizens they are supposed to be serving, starting with allowing the public and the press access to serious complaints of misconduct against police officers. But that is hard to accomplish as long as police contracts—with the complicity of municipalities that agree to these protections – continue to shield abusive officers from consequences.