CovertAction Quarterly Cops Vs. Citizen Review, continued
Family of Mary Mitchell protests her killing by NYPD after a domestic dispute.
POLICE UNION RESISTANCE:A TACTICAL OVERVIEWIt is not surprising, then, that the FOPs and police unions paramilitary labor organizations whose purpose is to protect the interests of their patrol officer members will go to great lengths to eliminate oversight. The tactics that police organizations increasingly use illustrate some of the ways in which they differ from other trade unions. They also show how difficult it is to distinguish genuine labor grievances from attempts by police to avoid accountability. As in Philadelphia, police organizations around the country are developing an increasingly sophisticated array of tools designed to manipulate the political system and sabotage the citizen review boards. At least five categories of tactics are being implemented.
1. NATIONAL LEVEL ORGANIZING I wasn't political when I came out of the FBI, says Charles Kluge, a former agent who is current executive director of Philadelphia's PAC, [but] some of the political stuff has been very eye-opening. 16 Over the past decade, police unions have become extremely politicized and have established a national lobbying presence. In October 1994, for example, the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) founded the National Law Enforcement Officer Rights Center in Washington, D.C., to protect officers' legal and constitutional rights that are being infringed upon by a wave of anti-police civil litigation.
NAPO's main objective appears to be passage of a national Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights Act which attempts to weaken state and local review by allowing only commissioned police officers to conduct investigations. NAPO claims that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), is collectively supported by its 475,000 police officer members, by the Fraternal Order of Police and by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
2. LITIGATION SABOTAGE On the state and local level, police response to perceived incursions on their autonomy follows a pattern. John Crew, of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Police Practices Project, has identified three stages of union resistance to citizen oversight:
- Over My Dead Body. After a particular, usually racially charged, incident prompts serious community discussion of citizen oversight, police leaders threaten to resign or take other extreme action.
- Political Inevitability. When a visible pattern of abuses emerges, police leaders suddenly undergo a magic conversion, and become proponents of citizen oversight advocating a pallid model lacking such teeth as subpoena power and independent investigations.
- Post-Partum Litigation. If a community manages to obtain strong citizen oversight, even if only on paper, police union resistance becomes vehement. Increasingly, unions are initiating lawsuits (such as that currently underway in Philadelphia) challenging the underlying authority or legality of the citizen review process. In California such lawsuits are common, even though many California boards have been operating for up to 20 years, and even though, says the ACLU's Crew, these suits have been 100 percent unsuccessful. In not one single legal challenge have the unions won.
If chilling citizen oversight is the goal of these unwinnable SLAPP suits, chilling citizens' complaints is the predictable result of another union tactic. In the fall of 1994, the Seattle Police Officers Guild slapped defamation suits against six citizens who had filed complaints that were not upheld by the department's internal investigations section. The suits were apparently prompted by the citizen review auditor's recommendation that officers who had logged a certain number of unsustained complaints be required to undergo intensive supervision. Although the guild's suits were ultimately dropped, citizen complaints in Seattle dropped almost 75 percent in the next six months.
3. OBSTRUCTIONIST TACTICS
When faced with a citizen review board which has independent investigative powers, leaders of police unions often advise their members to refuse or avoid subpoenas or interviews, to plead the Fifth Amendment, or to otherwise block an inquiry. This obstructionism is illegal, according to Crew. Although officers cannot be forced to testify if they plead the Fifth Amendment, they can be disciplined or discharged for their refusal. *22 Police unions, says Crew, invoke these tactics even though they know that they will not win in court and that review boards have the legal power to compel statements. The effect of the obstructionism and of SLAPP suits against citizens who file complaints is time-consuming and expensive litigation; the goal is to create enough pressure to force cities and counties to back down.
4. STATE LEGISLATION & LOBBYING
Law enforcement groups use their significant political clout, based largely on financial resources. According to a 1992 study by California Common Cause, law enforcement groups in that state contributed $1.2 million to local lawmakers between 1989 and 1991. [L]aw enforcement groups also hold the potent weapon of campaign endorsements, the study noted. ...If legislators vote against bills supported by police interests, they know they run the risk of being labeled as `soft on crime,' even if the legislation has nothing to do with public safety. The last thing a legislator wants in an election year is to lose the endorsement of police groups, or worse yet, wind up on their hit list.
In California, and other states, law enforcement groups have used this clout to pass a Police Officer Bill of Rights that grants privileges to cops during disciplinary processes privileges not available to suspects whom the same officers may have arrested or questioned. The Bill of Rights proposed in Pennsylvania, for example, restricts non-department questioning of officers and prohibits anonymous complaints. Others require that complaints be removed from personnel files after a few years and restrict the types of behavior that can trigger disciplinary action.
In 1992 and again this year, California legislators proposed major amendments to that state's Bill of Rights Act imposing a one-year statute of limitation from the time of the complaint to the date of punitive action. Given normal backlog and lengthy appeal delays, this limit would have virtually guaranteed immunity from discipline. Massive organized opposition from the ACLU and other groups defeated the proposed legislation.
5. ADMINISTRATIVE CHALLENGES OVER COLLECTIVE BARGAINING
Although sometimes they lose sight of it, the primary purpose of police organizations is to represent members as public employees and to collectively bargain with municipal and state governments over such negotiable issues as wages, benefits, off-duty pay, hours, and promotional opportunities. Since 1986, when the federal Fair Labor Standards Act was applied to public employees, most police unions have argued that the issue of citizen involvement in individual officer discipline falls under collective bargaining and thus involves only two parties: the union and the employer. This position omits entirely the role of a public justifiably concerned that police will act abusively or unlawfully and that their superiors will not take appropriate disciplinary action. The Ohio Supreme Court has recognized this right of the public to participate. Since collective bargaining is not an appropriate process for the full consideration of the issues raised in a complaint by a citizen against a police officer, it ruled, effective citizen review is essential to maintaining the public trust and disciplining police abuses.
Not all rulings have been as sympathetic to public involvement. In 1992, the Spokane (Washington) City Council established a citizen review process giving citizens the right to appeal whenever the police chief refused to discipline an officer after a complaint. The police union fought back with a complaint to the state's Public Employment Relations Commission. It alleged that the City had unilaterally changed procedures and by publicly disclosing disciplinary information, had invaded the officers' privacy rights, something that inherently constitutes a working condition.
The Emploment Relations Commission agreed with the union that changes in disciplinary procedures were subject to collective bargaining. It ordered the city to dismantle the Citizens Review Panel and to negotiate with the union. Spokane did not appeal this ruling and set out to work with the police body to create a new oversight mechanism one that includes police representatives, holds secret hearings, and has no subpoena power.
On the other side of the country, the same scenario is being played out. The Syracuse (New York) Police Benevolent Association has filed a similar complaint against the Citizen Review Board. A decision by the New York Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) is pending. The most dangerous aspect of all this, says community activist Nancy Rhodes who edits Policing by Consent, is that we have no access to the process. The PERB hearings are conducted in secret as are the union negotiations. There are no democratic controls.
PHILADELPHIA: AN ALL-OUT CITIZEN REVIEW WAR
In Philadelphia, too, the FOP is clearly in full-blown post-partum resistance sparked by the DeJesus case, but fueled by the potential effectiveness of the city's citizen review mechanism. Created in October 1993 after a fierce political struggle, it has subpoena power, independent investigators and the power to conduct public hearings. After it was funded and staffed in late 1994 and took on the DeJesus death-in-custody as its first case, the local FOP began to actively sabotage the PAC investigation.
Few cities are more in need of citizen oversight than Philadelphia. At about the same time the FOP was challenging citizen review, six of its members pled guilty to federal charges stemming from blatant corruption in Philadelphia's largely African-American 39th District. The New York Times described the convicted cops as so corrupt, so calloused to the rights and welfare of residents that the details have shaken the city to its roots. Federal charges include conspiracy, obstruction of justice and pocketing more than $100,000 in cash they robbed from suspected drug dealers through beatings, intimidations, illegal searches and denying suspects their constitutional rights. Revelations from this latest in a series of police scandals will force the city to set aside at least 1,400 drug-related convictions and pay millions of dollars for false arrest and imprisonment claims.
An FBI investigation of Philadelphia's Police Department, started in 1992 in the 39th District, now includes the department's Highway Patrol, as well as other areas, including the predominantly Latino 25th District, where DeJesus died.33 Even Ken Rocks, vice president of the local FOP, admitted that the prospect of the arrest of additional officers was certain and very, very distressing.
Still, the FOP maintains that the police can police themselves. The case of officer John Baird makes nonsense of that claim. Baird, who had made thousands of arrests in the 39th District by the time of his discharge, had received excellent ratings from his superior officers, while he was racking up 22 citizen complaints all dismissed. By the 23rd complaint, Baird was confident that the whole thing would go away, just as the previous 22 complaints had. His downfall was bad timing. The last complaint was filed in March 1991, just as the Rodney King case prompted the Justice Department to review all police brutality cases, including those in Philadelphia. The resulting FBI investigation and arbitration hearing revealed Baird's sordid history of fabricating evidence, buying off witnesses, and lying and covering up.
It also came out that over the past five years, Philadelphia's Police Internal Affairs Unit had investigated almost 600 citizen complaints. Only ten were sustained, with only two Philadelphia officers actually disciplined. The enormous bias in the department and its almost total inability to deal with a department run amuck was undeniable.36
Nonetheless, the FOP refuses to cooperate with an agency whose main purpose is to bolster public trust in the police. And community leaders in Philadelphia, particularly those in the Latino community, continue to demand that the Police Advisory Commission function in the public eye to deal with rogue officers. The Commission is the only hope that our community has to redress the wrongs of some of the officers from that District, says one 25th District Latino leader. *37 Another community leader hopes that the DeJesus hearings will begin a cleansing process that in the long run will restore the community's confidence in a critical public service. Hopefully, something positive will come out of the DeJesus tragedy.
WEIGHING THE COSTS
Some of the demands by police unions, including the right to due process during any disciplinary proceeding, deserve active citizen support. Others far exceed the boundaries of legitimate labor concerns: Police officers should not be entitled to a separate Bill of Rights that encourages disregard of the real thing and promotes an official sense of separateness and privilege. In addition, contrary to the administrative ruling in Washington state, the daily working conditions of police are not affected by citizen review since boards only recommend discipline to a police chief who then decides whether or not to act. At least one state supreme court has upheld this position.
As the situation in Philadelphia illustrates, unions have the resources to launch innumerable chilling lawsuits. They can obstruct and sabotage, refuse to cooperate, and take the Fifth. But in the end, when the situation festers to the point that it has in Philadelphia, citizen oversight and democracy have a chance to reassert themselves.
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