Year after George Floyd’s death, police contracts stop Illinois reform

Year after George Floyd’s death, police contracts stop Illinois reform

It has been a year since George Floyd died beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, setting off riots in Chicago and protests across Illinois. Lawmakers vowed reforms, but nothing will change as long as police contracts overpower state law.

At the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, 36 states have passed some form of police reform. If Illinois tries to follow, the efforts essentially will be meaningless.

That’s because Illinois gives greater weight to police union contracts than any reforms that make it into law.

Section 15 is a provision hidden near the end of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act detailing how state law must yield to union contracts, including those within police departments. That means if any reforms run counter to a police union’s contract – such as making it easier to discipline or fire problematic officers, amending the police “bill of rights” or ending the use of police chokeholds – the union contract will prevail. This applies to police departments across Illinois.

The Chicago Police Department’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police shows how Section 15 stops police reform in Illinois. Officers receive protections and investigators face prohibitions that members of the public facing a criminal allegation don’t generally enjoy.

FOP contract provisions control which complaints are investigated. The U.S. Department of Justice found Chicago fails to investigate nearly half of police misconduct complaints because of FOP contract provisions such as limiting investigations of accused officers whose complainants are anonymous. A provision requires complainants to sign an “appropriate affidavit,” confirming under oath that their allegations are true. That both intimidates complainants and stops fellow officers from filing complaints because the threat of retaliation is real.

FOP provisions also hinder investigations that move forward after a signed affidavit is filed. The contract gives suspect officers access to information and help in shaping investigation statements. Accused officers can be provided with a copy of any and all recorded or written statements they made within 72 hours of when the statement was made. An officer may even be allowed to review video or audio evidence related to the alleged incident prior to making his or her statement.

Provisions also impede public access to investigation records. FOP contract provisions allow for investigation records pertaining to disciplinary files to be destroyed after a certain time, meaning information cannot be used against the officer in any future proceedings. Misconduct incidents that do not result in disciplinary action are removed from an officer’s record after just one year. Disciplinary files for “Police Board cases” are destroyed after five years, and “not sustained files alleging criminal conduct or excessive force” are retained for a seven years after the incident or violation.

Chicago is not the only Illinois city with these barriers to holding rogue officers accountable. A survey of contracts in Illinois’ next 10 largest cities found similar barriers to stopping bad cops and protecting the vast majority of officers serving honorably but being tainted by bad actors.

If a police reform package yet emerges in the waning days of the Illinois General Assembly’s session, it will be merely words on paper until the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act is changed to stop police contracts from carrying more power than state law. That reform would have been appropriate on May 25 as the nation remembered George Floyd, but it will be no less meaningful if it comes before lawmakers adjourn on Memorial Day.

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