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How Cities Lost Control of Police Discipline

Historians in the News
tags: Police, urban history



It took Portland, Ore., almost $1 million in legal fees, efforts by two mayors and a police chief, and years of battle with the police union to defend the firing of Officer Ron Frashour — only to have to bring him back. Today, the veteran white officer, who shot an unarmed Black man in the back a decade ago, is still on the force.

Sam Adams, the former mayor of Portland, said the frustrated disciplinary effort showed “how little control we had” over the police. “This was as bad a part of government as I’d ever seen. The government gets to kill someone and get away with it.”

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers in May spurred huge protests and calls for a nationwide reset on law enforcement, police departments are facing new state laws, ballot proposals and procedures to rein in abusive officers. Portland and other cities have hired new chiefs and are strengthening civilian oversight. Some municipal leaders have responded faster than ever to high-profile allegations of misconduct: Since May, nearly 40 officers have been fired for use of force or racist behavior.

But any significant changes are likely to require dismantling deeply ingrained systems that shield officers from scrutiny, make it difficult to remove them and portend roadblocks for reform efforts, according to an examination by The New York Times. For this article, reporters reviewed hundreds of arbitration decisions, court cases and police contracts stretching back decades, and interviewed more than 150 former chiefs and officers, law enforcement experts and civilian oversight board members.

While the Black Lives Matter protests this year have aimed to address police violence against people of color, another wave of protests a half-century ago was exploited to gain the protections that now often allow officers accused of excessive force to avoid discipline.

That effort took off in Detroit, partly as a backlash to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when police officers around the country — who at times acted as instruments of suppression for political officials or were accused of brutality in quelling unrest — felt vulnerable to citizen complaints.

Newly formed police unions leveraged fears of lawlessness and an era of high crime to win disciplinary constraints, often far beyond those of other public employees. Over 50 years, these protections, expanded in contracts and laws, have built a robust system for law enforcement officers. As a result, critics said, officers empowered to protect the public instead were protected from the public.

In many places, the union contract became the ultimate word. The contract overrode the city charter in Detroit. The contract can beat state law in Illinois. The contract, for years, has stalled a federal consent decree in Seattle.

 

Read entire article at New York Times

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