In our social contract with each other, the police contract is one of the most important.
Louisville has been without a police union contract since 2018. Since then, the city and the River City Fraternal Order of Police have been operating under the provisions of the previous one. Now, in the light of Breonna Taylor’s senseless killing at the hands of police, this contract is under new and necessarily increased scrutiny.
But beyond the specific provisions in this contract, bigger questions must be asked:
What is the relationship between policing and the community?
What do we define as crime in the 21st century?
Do arrests and incarceration solve those problems?
Who does a police union contract help serve and protect?
The first publicly-funded U.S. police force didn’t appear until 1838 in Boston, to protect the harbor. However, by the late 1800s, all major cities had police departments, and their creation wasn’t necessarily rooted in the public good. In the North, they were created to quell uprisings of unions whose participants were largely immigrants. In the South, they were extensions of the earlier slave patrols and used to enforce segregation. At the turn of the century, policing grew during Prohibition, and its mandate expanded to include what we would now call “drug enforcement.”
The criminalization and incarceration of poverty and addiction is not working.
Over the last 70 years, the poverty rate in this country has continued to remain between 10% and 15%, while minority poverty rates continue to be disproportionately higher. And since the 90s, drug overdose death rates have nearly tripled. Vagrancy, theft and even a good portion of the violence in our city can be seen through the lens of poverty and those who see the drug trade as the only way out. Relying on the police to address all the issues that confront society is like if the only tool your landscaper had was a blowtorch. Sure, the grass would be trimmed, but all that is left is scorched earth.
So, what is the answer? The first answer is to acknowledge that policing can’t fix most of our real problems. It can only chase the symptoms.
The second answer is to acknowledge that the way we approach policing is still deeply ingrained in systemic oppression and racism. Systemic racism doesn’t need racists to survive. It only needs people to be invested in preserving and protecting the system so that it can continue to produce outcomes that disproportionately harm people and communities of color. Police union contracts can inadvertently support this systemic racism whether we realize it or not. They insulate and protect the tools of suppression by lowering accountability and transparency.
According to “The neglect of police unions: exploring one of the most important areas of American policing,” a 2008 study in the journal Police Practice and Research, “Virtually all of the published items that express an opinion on the impact of police unions regard them as having a negative effect, particularly on innovation, accountability, and police-community relations.” A 2006 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that officers in unionized police forces are almost 36% more likely to be the subjects of an excessive-force complaint, but 50% more likely to beat the allegations in disciplinary hearings.
A group called Campaign Zero, which has the goal of zero police-involved deaths, has identified six key ways that police union contracts decrease accountability. These include provisions that disqualify complaints, restrict or delay interrogations, give officers unfair access to information, limit oversight and discipline, require the city to pay for misconduct (as opposed to the individual or union) and allow for the erasure of misconduct records. The current Louisville contract allows all six of these provisions.
The group also identifies eight practices that can reduce police killings, but Louisville follows just four:
X Ban Chokeholds and Strangleholds
✓ Require De-escalation
✓ Require Warning Before Shooting
✓ Exhaust All Alternatives Before Shooting
X Duty to Intervene
X Ban Shooting at Moving Vehicles
✓ A Use of Force Continuum
X Require Comprehensive Reporting
And in some cases where we check the boxes, such as having a continuum of force policy, we see time and time again that the policy is not enforced because of the general lack of accountability.
Accountability and transparency are fundamental, and after the police shootings of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, Mayor Greg Fischer pointed to the union contract as the biggest barrier to firing the officers. The city would be open to lawsuits, and officers could be reinstated. The time, information and tools provided to an officer accused of on-the-job misconduct give them the luxury of preparing their opening defense argument before having to give an initial statement.
Facing all this, the mayor could only say, “If I could change anything, I would.” The fact is that we can.
We are in a unique position. We are a city with only an interim police chief and with no union contract. We are a city with a mayor who has just two more years in office and cannot run again. We are at a true inflection point.
Now is the time to rethink the strained social contract between the community and the government and the police contract that has been responsible for so much of that pain.
We must demand that any new contract between the River City Fraternal Order of Police and the Metro Louisville government be subject to public review before it is signed and include provisions that provide accountability and transparency. This new contract cannot happen in the dark. We can talk all we want about solving the problems confronting us, but the budgets we make, the actions we take and the contracts we sign will be the true indication if we are ready to begin the slow and painful process of freeing us from the structural sins of our past.
For more information on the policies and practices recommended by Campaign Zero, got to: joincampaignzero.org, checkthepolice.org and 8cantwait.org
J.P. Lebangood is a local writer, advocate and voice actor “who spends a lot time talking to himself.” He is a member of a new group, faircontract502.org, that seeks to create a fair and accountable police contract.