December 9, 2023

Arbitration, traffic enforcement, and shootings by federal officers


PERF members,

This week I’m going to provide updates on a few topics I’ve written about previously.

Boston police arbitration

Earlier this week Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who ran as an advocate of police reform, announced that the city agreed to a new labor contract with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which I think was a win for both management and labor. The agreement includes a 21 percent raise over five years and modifications to the systems for assigning paid details and verifying medical leave claims. And, most significantly, the new contract will reform the arbitration system.

As the Boston Globe explained, “30 crimes would now not be eligible for arbitration, if an officer is indicted for them or if they feature in a sustained internal department finding. They include murder, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking, human trafficking, armed robbery, and hate crimes.  .  .  .  Currently, a police officer facing any disciplinary matter can seek arbitration, a process sometimes used to overturn disciplinary orders. Earlier this year, city officials said five members of the department’s current sworn officers were fired only to be rehired through arbitration.”

This aspect of the contract was significant because it takes on an issue faced by leaders in every heavily unionized city: arbitration decisions that undermine chiefs’ disciplinary decisions. Police chiefs tell me that one of their biggest frustrations is when they discipline officers, but those disciplinary decisions are reduced or overturned by arbitrators. This undermines the ability of chiefs to hold officers accountable, and makes supervisors cautious about taking disciplinary actions they think are appropriate. A 2017 Washington Post article reviewed the firings of 1,881 officers in the country’s largest departments over the previous decade and found that agencies were forced to reinstate 450 of those officers. I spoke with several current and former police leaders about this issue in 2020, and I think then-Minneapolis Deputy Chief Henry Halvorson (who has sadly since passed away) put it best: “It’s difficult to reform when you have people turning over what you decide is right for your organization.”

Now Mayor Wu and her new police commissioner, Michael Cox, are taking on this arbitration issue, and the department won’t need to go to arbitration when officers commit serious crimes.

The change to the system for verifying medical leave claims is also significant. According to the Globe, “At the start of contract negotiations, about 10 percent of the union’s members were on medical leave for more than one year, which is more than 150 police officers. In an attempt to simplify the process, the contract calls for an independent medical examiner to settle disagreements between an officer’s doctor and the department’s doctor regarding an individual’s ability to return to work.”

This has been a problem since I worked in the Boston Police Department. It was well known that there were some doctors who would rubber-stamp officers’ medical claims. Many officers are on medical leave for legitimate reasons, but unfortunately some are taking advantage of the system. Like other cities, at times Boston has had dozens of officers on medical leave who could be working. At a time when there’s a shortage of officers, this could help get some cops back into light-duty roles where they can help the department.

So the cops got a substantial pay raise, and the police commissioner got some tools to help him run the department as he sees fit. I think there are lessons here for other mayors who are looking to implement reforms.

Traffic enforcement

Earlier this year I wrote about the drop in traffic enforcement. As I wrote then, agencies across the country have seen a drop in enforcement and a rise in traffic deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m not suggesting that the drop in enforcement is the only cause of the rise of traffic fatalities, but I believe it has been a factor.

This week the Austin American-Statesman published an article about a recent study of traffic patrol and road safety by the Austin city auditor’s office. The auditor’s office study found that, “According to best practice studies and other research, there may be an inverse relationship between the level of traffic enforcement and the rate of injury and death on the roadways. However, the intent and type of enforcement, when and where it is deployed, and the data used to inform the deployment are critical to traffic safety efforts.”

After consulting with police and city officials in Dallas, San Antonio, and Seattle, the auditor’s office found that, as with Austin, police departments in these cities are facing staffing issues that limit their ability to conduct traffic enforcement. And the cities saw fatal crashes increase from 2018 to 2022.

In addition to staffing issues, I think some of the drop in traffic enforcement is due to officers pulling back on discretionary engagement.

Nationally, traffic fatalities have decreased slightly in 2022 and 2023 after peaking in 2021, but there are still thousands more deaths every year than we saw throughout the 2010s. It’s important for police leaders to keep their agency’s attention and the public’s attention on this issue to prevent needless deaths, and I’m curious what trends you are seeing in your cities.

Shootings by federal officers

On Tuesday NBC News published an investigation into shootings by the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, and the U.S. Marshals Service:

“From 2018 to 2022, 223 people were shot by an on-duty federal officer, a member of a federal task force or a local officer participating in an operation with federal agents, according to an NBC News analysis. A total of 151 were killed, an average of 30 per year.

“Examinations of the incidents revealed that the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies continue to use tactics that many big-city police departments now shun. They have fired at moving cars and shot people within seconds of encounters – without taking steps to de-escalate the situations.”

I’ve heard many police chiefs whose officers work on task forces with federal agents question whether those agents operate under policies that are as restrictive as local law enforcement agencies’ policies. They see one arm of the Justice Department hold local agencies accountable for issues like body-worn camera usage, use-of-force policies, and the release of information after critical incidents. But the department’s own law enforcement agencies seem slow to adopt those standards.

In 2021, I gave DOJ credit for embracing body-worn cameras and reforming its policies on chokeholds and “no-knock” entries. It was an overdue step in the right direction, and we hope to see more progress.

Have a wonderful weekend!