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Bruce Bialosky

Who is Responsible for Police Reform?

A single event has been the catalyst to discuss our police unlike any other time we have had in this country. The reactions are on a spectrum between reasoned discussion with moderate change all the way to wholesale change in how we address the issue of police, particularly in how they interact with various communities.

It is generally accepted even by the most ardent supporters of the police (include me in that group) that there is a need to spend more effort in policing the police. If there are 800,000 police in this country and one percent are an issue, that is 8,000 cops. They may have become problematic through being worn down by the rigors of the job. Or they may have been improperly screened in the first place and gotten further than they should have.

I have asserted that a large part of the problem is the police unions protecting bad cops. There is no question that cops deserve protection because at times they are either falsely accused or they make decisions in dangerous situations within a split second as to whether they have to take extreme actions to protect themselves or others in extraordinary scenarios. Some like to “Monday morning quarterback” these situations for political purposes.

Then there are officers who should be removed from the force and can’t be because they are protected by their union and the system. This story was conveyed to me by a person who served as the police chief of one of America’s largest cities. Following is the story that I was told.

“True story to support your point about police unions:”

“The Chief prior to me fired an officer for beating a handcuffed prisoner. The officer appealed his termination. The contract at the time allowed for three hearing officers to be selected for his review. The Department could remove one, the officer accused could remove one and the hearing officer left heard the case. This is common in contracts across the country. But it creates an environment where the hearing officers (if they want to remain in the pool or have a chance at being selected) are motivated to ‘split the baby’ in their decisions so both sides get a little something.”

“The Chief retired before the appeal was finished and I was appointed Chief. Shortly after, the hearing officer ruled that termination was too harsh a punishment and replaced it with a 30-day suspension and we had to hire the officer back. Within a year, this officer again was charged with beating a handcuffed prisoner, only this time his sergeant actually had to pull him off the prisoner. The recommendation up the chain of command was termination. I concurred and fired the officer. “

“He appeals his termination again and we go through the ‘process’ once more. Shockingly, the hearing officer (albeit a different one) rules again that termination is too harsh and imposes a 30-day suspension and orders the department to hire him back. I’m dumbfounded. I ask the City Attorney’s office what my options are as I see this officer as a multi-million-dollar liability for the City. The City Attorney says my only option is to appeal the hearing officer’s decision to District Court for a Judge to decide. I ask the City Attorney to do just that. The Judge rules against us and orders a 30-day suspension and that we hire the officer back.”

“I share this story with you to underline the very real problem faced by law enforcement executives across the country. When police unions were allowed to become political, throwing money at politicians and candidates (including Judicial candidates’ standing for retention elections) they no longer were just about protecting the wages, hours and working conditions of their members.”

“There’s a city in Southern California (name withheld) where I have heard officers say, ‘we practice union-based policing here’ mocking the term ‘community-based policing’ and they are absolutely right. The Chief there has little control to effect change if the union is opposed.”

We will never get policing perfect. These are jobs that often involve volatile situations. People evolve and management does not always see when it is time to pull a cop from the streets and put them in a less visible position. We need ever-improving training and better supervision. We will never get things right if the system and the unions protect (by definition) ‘the bad apples.’ The system shouldn’t force the good cops to be besmirched by the bad cops. And their unions cannot condone that. No one wins.