As agencies nationwide deal with how to reform the law enforcement system in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction, Illinois struggles to hold officers accountable — apparently due to hindrance from police union contracts.
The Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), a nonprofit organization that researches and reports on public policy issues in the state, found that police union contracts and collective bargaining clauses are the reason why many officers under investigation are not disciplined.
For example, the IPI found that Chauvin had used fatal force before, and had 17 complaints filed against him, 16 of which were closed without discipline and only one resulted in “letters of reprimand.”
The reason why Chauvin, with such a troublesome record, stayed on the force is likely due to police union contracts that prevented police chiefs from firing him.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois found that of 30,000 misconduct complaints in Chicago in a five-year period, nearly half were never investigated by the city, and only 2% of complaints led to discipline.
According to the report, “institutional barriers” and “provisions in the city’s agreement with unions” were the problem.
The provisions can be found Section 15 of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, or IPLRA. It contains a provision “Act Takes Precedence,” which states that when a contract between a government unit (such as a police department) and a union conflicts with a state or local law or regulation, the contract prevails over the law.
The result is that even if Illinois passes police reform laws giving police departments the power to discipline misconduct and carry out investigations without obstruction, police unions could undermine the law with by writing contrary provisions into union employment contracts.
Illinois Policy staff attorney and director of labor policy Mailee Smith said the police contracts allow for an outside party to arbitrate over an internal investigation.
“A third-party arbitrator to basically overrule what a police chief has already decided should happen,” said Smith.
Police union contracts across the 10 largest municipalities in Illinois all currently contain some provisions that protect officers from being investigated or punished. The IPI enumerated the provisions, including prohibiting anonymity of complaints, restricting interrogations of accused officers, providing special information to accused officers, subjecting discipline to a lengthy appeal procedure and hiding investigations from subsequent review. All of these provisions aim to protect officers who may be misbehaving.
The non-profit explained in their report that the way forward is by amending Section 15 in the IPLRA to no longer allow contracts to carry more weight than the law. In order to do that, the General Assembly would have to pass legislation to either eliminate the provision in Section 15 that gives contracts precedence over state law, or limit the subjects and language that can be negotiated in those contracts so they do not conflict with police accountability reform laws.
Finally, a recent poll by IPI found that most Illinois households think Section 15 should be changed. When asked whether provisions in a police union contract, such as provisions providing for disciplinary processes, should carry more weight than provisions in state law, 51.4% of households answered “no.”
Legislation that addresses the IPLRA provisions has already been introduced to the house. House Bill 3891 would exclude police union contracts from the language in Section 15, meaning those contracts would no longer be allowed to be more powerful than other laws, and a second bill, House Bill 3892, would limit negotiations by police unions to compensation only, excluding disciplinary provisions that could be used to override state law.
These bills also tend to be bipartisan with 54% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans supporting the idea of changing the law.
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