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State Law Protects Police Contract Provisions Blasted by Task Force

Proposed changes to how officer misconduct investigations work would take more than just a new union contract.

Protesters hold a news conference in Dec. 2015 after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he created a Task Force on police accountability.   Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

While Chicago’s police union contracts have faced scrutiny in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting, culminating in the scathing 190-page report released by the Police Accountability Task Force this month, critics have so far skirted a potentially more challenging roadblock: a state law that mirrors parts of the contracts and bears the police union’s fingerprints.

Back in the early 1980s, shortly after the Fraternal Order of Police became the sole bargaining unit for rank-and-file Chicago cops, the union helped craft and lobbied for the Uniform Peace Officers’ Disciplinary Act. The bill influences how civilians file complaints against police, how misconduct investigations are conducted, and how interrogators question cops.

In 1983, Illinois Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a former Chicago police officer whose district included much of Chicago’s Northwest side and nearby suburbs, argued on behalf of the law, saying it was needed to take officers “out of the class of being second- and third-class citizens and makes them equal to the people they’re arresting.” According to transcriptions, the now-deceased Republican lawmaker said, “Criminals have much more rights than police officers currently have when they’re faced with disciplinary action by their superiors.”

Yet between 2011 and 2015, the Task Force’s report found that only 7 percent of complaints brought against police officers were sustained and only 2 percent resulted in actual discipline—part of the reason why the Task Force cited a need for change.

Illinois is one of at least 14 states with similar “law enforcement bill of rights” laws. Maryland’s police bill of rights bill, the oldest of the laws, was targeted for reform after Baltimore’s mayor accused it of frustrating the investigation into the police-involved death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Lawmakers in Maryland earlier this month made changes to the bill following the backlash.

It’s not that the Chicago task force was ignorant of potential state-level obstacles to reform. They allude to “state statutes” that help govern department procedures but decided not to wade too far into specifics, says task force member Maurice Classen, a former county prosecutor in Washington state who now works as a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation and focuses on police reform, public safety, and other policy issues.

“It’s hard to draw the line of how far you get into the weeds,” he says. “I stand behind the report we wrote and I think we made certain conscious choices … I think we did what we could in considering what’s within the city’s power.”

Still, some proposed changes would be impossible without addressing state law, whether in contract language or in the law itself. As seen in an annotated version of task force recommendations (an effort I participated in), released last week by City Bureau, the Invisible Institute, and Smart Chicago, at least three union contract provisions blasted by the task force would live on in state law if they were killed in negotiations with the city.

Police union president Dean Angelo said in a phone interview that his union’s contract and state rules help keep officers from suffering frivolous or false complaints and unfair investigations.

The task force report disputes this, saying that the stipulations create barriers to accountability and can serve to delay and obstruct investigations of police misconduct. Parts of the state law not mentioned in the report include that police under investigation can delay interrogations for “a reasonable time” until they can have a lawyer present. And, the police officer under investigation has the right to be informed in writing of the names of the officer leading an investigation into their alleged misconduct and all of their interrogators, which critics argue gives them the opportunity to influence the investigations. Officers also have to be given a complete record of statements they have made before they are questioned, which critics argue would help an officer who was lying keep his or her story together.

Law professor Lawrence E. Rosenthal was a top lawyer at the Chicago Department of Law from 1990 to 2005. He says that some of the rules in both the contract and the bill don’t sound that bad in principle, but that they have been used to stall or halt investigations.

“[The rules] had the effect of slowing down the investigation and giving the officer time to construct a defense that most of the rest of us don’t have,” says Rosenthal, now a professor teaching local government law, civil rights, criminal law, and other topics at Chapman University in California.

Public perception plays a role, too, as acknowledged in the task force report and by reform supporters. Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says, “These are the types of things that can build some mistrust between the police and the community.”

“I think after the McDonald case one of the most frustrating issues for a lot of people is they felt things were covered up, and not in the open or transparent, and it seems to me a lot of these small provisions add to that perception,” Brune says. “We need to write the rules in a way that the public feels things aren’t being obscured purposely.”

The contracts for sergeants, lieutenants and captains expire on June 30, so negotiations should be right around the corner. The union contract for rank-and-file officers doesn’t expire until June 2017, and politicians had already targeted it for changes before the task force issued its report. Many of the same politicians who are talking tough now voted unanimously for the contract in 2014, something that Angelo is quick to point out.

Ald. Howard Brookins says the contract still has a more robust set of protections than the state law, such as rules outlining the disciplinary process that he said can tie the city’s hands when it comes to dealing with problem cops. But Brookins, whose 21st ward includes Far South Side neighborhoods, says the state law should also be on people’s minds.

“I think you look at everything when it comes to police accountability and not just the contract but any obstacle that would inhibit the truth coming out and justice being served,” he says.

But Angelo roundly rejects claims that police union contracts are obstacles to holding cops accountable. He says the task force didn’t go far enough to seek union input for the report, and accuses the mayor’s hand-picked task force of being biased against police and determined to make an issue of the collective bargaining agreements.

“I think the report is truly flawed in several aspects, and I don’t take much stock in it all,” Angelo says.

If negotiations with the police union don’t result in changes proposed by the task force, politicians could instead focus on changing state laws that govern investigations, discipline, and work rules for police. Some legislators are already looking into it, including State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, who recently proposed a bill that would require police misconduct records to be preserved after she learned about police union efforts to have the city destroy decades worth of the records as an interpretation of their contract.

Van Pelt, a Democrat representing Chicago, says the restrictions around anonymous complaints should be reexamined, and that the law should include language about how police found guilty of misconduct are disciplined, although she says she needs to study the law more before getting into specifics.

“Traditionally, we haven’t even addressed those type of issues on the state level,” Van Pelt says. “But when you have a city looking like it’s going off the rails it’s my responsibility as a state legislator to step in and try to address the problems people are facing.”

Angelo doesn’t sound worried about opposition in Springfield—yet.

“No one has drawn any lines in the sand,” he says.

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