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OKCPD’s union contracts: Keeping bad cops on the street?

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NORMAN, Okla.- The Oklahoma City Police Department’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police contains protections and measures identical to those across the country that have been used to impede independent investigations into police misconduct, effectively shielding officers from accountability and ensuring their continued employment.

Through open records requests, the research project Campaign Zero acquired and reviewed the union contracts of 81 of the nation’s 100 largest police departments, identifying the ways in which these contracts shield police from accountability according to six indicators. 

These six indicators are: 1) Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too late. 2) Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after an incident. 3) Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to interrogation.  4) Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting civilian oversight structures. 5) Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including paid leave, legal fees, and the resulting settlement with the victim. 6) Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file.

The OKCPD contract conforms to indicator numbers 2,3,4 and 5.  The Tulsa PD contract conforms to numbers 2,3,4 and 6. 

One notable aspect of the data is the variability among departments as to which indicators are present in their union contracts.  There exists in the contract with the Tulsa PD, for instance, the expungement of past misconduct records, a provision the OKC PD’s contract lacks.  While many departments’ contracts contain indicator 2, many also do not.  The same can be said for all six indicators, which begs the question of to what extent they are necessary, and whether they serve the public interest or the interests of the officers themselves at the expense of the public. 

While the specific language in the contract that these indicators refer to appears relatively innocuous, it provides wide latitude for officers to avoid punishment for misconduct.

An investigation published in the Washington Post in August entitled, “Fired/Rehired”, found that of the 1,881 officers fired for misconduct from the 37 largest police departments in the country since 2006, 451 were later rehired.  Their crimes ranged from sexual assault, shooting deaths of unarmed civilians, cheating on overtime, and related conduct unbecoming of an officer of the law.  Despite their undisputed guilt and subsequent termination, the police departments were forced to rehire them after the officers made an appeal required by their union contracts, which means that arbitrators overruled the termination decisions of police chiefs across the country.  Many of the officers’ crimes are undisputed, but clerical or procedural errors on the part of chiefs result in a violation of fine print in the contracts that result in an officer reinstated. 

The investigative piece described an incident from 2007 when OKC PD Sgt. John Blumenthal kicked a handcuffed man in the head, who was lying on the ground at the time.  He was fired and convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery, but two years later an arbitrator ordered the police department to rehire him.  According to the article, Blumenthal is currently a motorcycle officer. 

Oklahoma City police Chief Bill Citty is referenced in the piece:

““The message is huge,” said Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, who said he loses about 80 percent of arbitration cases. “Officers know all they have to do is grieve it, arbitrate it and get their jobs back.””

Police unions have a way of throwing a wrench in transparency measures, as the OKC police union did last year in respect to the deployment of body cams by all Oklahoma City officers.  Six months into the body camera pilot program, an arbitrator between the Fraternal Order of Police and the City Council sided with the union, ordering the body cam program shelved because it violates the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union.  At issue was the ability of an officer’s supervisor to view bodycam footage at will, which would allow the supervisor to immediately see footage of misconduct, and make decisions based upon that evidence.  It ostensibly gave the supervisor the ability to play favorites among subordinates, but in reality, it deprived the supervisor the ability to evaluate the actions of subordinates, or, the way most private sector workplaces function.  The body cams have since been deployed, albeit with the disputed provision solved to the union’s satisfaction.

This isn’t an anomaly, as police unions across the country have opposed the implementation of body cams in almost every instance. 

In many instances, unions demand more pay or more benefits in exchange for measures such as body cameras, effectively holding transparency and accountability hostage.

Among public servants, police possess the greatest power over the lives of citizens, as well as the highest degree of support from the public.  People generally like the police and are more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in almost every instance.  This high degree of public support, however, is exploited by the unions representing them, using that support as leverage during contract negotiations.  No city council wants to be seen as “anti-cop”, and oppose police protections no matter how unnecessary or prone to shielding misconduct from scrutiny and punishment. 

The real question should be whether police unions should have decision-making power at all in matters that involve public safety.  Tying the hands of city councils, overriding their decisions, and effectively removing control from the hands of council members and placing it in the hands of a union is a dangerous state of affairs. 

The majority of private sector jobs are hire-at-will, public sector employment should be no different. 

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Shane Smith

Shane Smith is an accountant and freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in economics from...

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