The 2014 state-sanctioned murder of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald, like other shootings of its kind across the country, revealed the lengths that city and state political leaders will go to absolve police officers of any responsibility in the callous execution of black people.
Shortly after Officer Jason Van Dyke pumped 16 bullets into McDonald, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in the midst of a reelection campaign, and his colleagues on the City Council secured a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family. Officials also delayed the release of the dash cam footage that prosecutors would later use to charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
While this kind of orchestration comes as a surprise to few, a deeper look at police union contracts sheds light on the totality of what legal scholars describe as the egregious legal protections awarded to officers when they inflict bodily harm against civilians. Such an examination will show why it’s difficult to ensure justice for victims of police brutality and their families.
Since the days James Richard J. Daly sat at the helm of Chicago city government, the city’s police department has wreaked havoc on residents of African descent without consequence. Under the command of Police Commander Jon Burge, officers detained and tortured suspects for hours and days at a time throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Decades later, Emanuel addressed these atrocities, launching a $5.5 million reparations fund for victims. Beyond the surface, however, little has changed, due mainly to the police union contracts.
A deal reached by the City Council and Chicago police union last year, for example, allows officers accused of misconduct and excessive use of force to avoid questioning for up to 10 days. Additional legal measures shield officers from polygraph tests and expunge disciplinary records after five years. Under the most recent version of the contract, investigators can also show officers evidence before taking their statement, a rule that University of Chicago law professor Craig Fullerton says “raise[s] eyebrows because it’s a double standard.”
In September, members of the Black Lives Matter movement targeted police union contracts in its “Campaign Zero” proposal, citing a compilation of data from police jurisdictions across the country as proof that the legal leeway afforded to abusive officers does a great disservice to the cities they patrol. With union protections in place, auditing departments becomes a cumbersome process. Other benefits commonly provided in police contracts include paid leave for officers who kill civilians, restrictions on the amount of time one could be interrogated, and the abolishment of civilian oversight boards in cases of police misconduct.
These laws count as part of the perfect formula for an authoritarian force that can kill with impunity. This was the case in Portland, Oregon, where officials dismissed two-thirds of complaints according to findings from a 2012 U.S. Department of Justice investigation. In Philadelphia, police union officials challenged Chief Charles Ramsey’s attempt to disclose the names of officers involved in a May 2015 shooting incident, arguing that they had contractual immunity. With contractual agreements that void disciplinary action after certain deadlines and expunge misconduct records after three years, police officers in Seattle also stand above the law. For some of the men and women in blue working in that department, impending changes may be too much to bear, as evidenced by Seattle Police Officer Guild president Ron Smith’s contention that there’s a war against the police.
Indeed, if there is an all-out assault on the rights of police officers, dismantling union contracts would be a huge undertaking. Police lobbying groups often navigate the political realm to secure favors from their counterparts in the justice system and legislature. For instance, the campaign dollars and political clout used by the Policemen’s Benevolent Association and National Sheriffs’ Association helped departments across the country obtain federal grants for overtime and qualified immunity, which holds taxpayers accountable in paying police brutality lawsuits.
It’s no different in the courtroom where prosecutors are forgiving to officers who act hastily. The reverence for what many perceive a dangerous job allows officers demonize their victims under oath and without pushback. Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson commented on the late Mike Brown’s size during grand jury proceedings in 2014. Before a grand jury failed to indict them, the two Cleveland officers involved in Tamir Rice’s death also said a fear for their lives caused them to pull the trigger.
The prevailing argument for police union contracts centers on the pressures of the job, especially when one is in the midst of potentially dangerous situations. However, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that being a police officer isn’t much of a hazardous job, at least when compared to a truck driver who drives long hours with little sleep. Additionally, violent crime has been on a years-long decline. Even with this evidence on the table, those engulfed in negotiations with police unions fall for these fallacies and succumb to officers’ demands for leniency.
Such safeguards call into question what will happen to the Chicago police officer who shot and killed a 55-year-old woman and a mentally ill teenager while responding to a call about the latter’s psychotic episode on the night after Christmas. Instead of taking the young man, named Quintonio Legrier, to the hospital as family members expected, officers shot him seven times. Bettie Jones, the other victim, was a tenant who lived downstairs from Legrier’s family. A bullet fatally struck her in the neck.
Police officials are calling the shooting and “accident” and Emanuel released a statement saying “regardless of the circumstance, we all grieve when there’s a loss in the city.” For Jones’ family, who recently filed a lawsuit against the city, an apology won’t suffice. It remains to be seen if the people responsible for these civilian deaths are held accountable for their actions. If police unions have their way, that will be very unlikely.