The perception that police departments protect their officers when they are accused of abuse or wrongdoing is not an image problem but a reality. Bargaining contracts between the police union and local police departments have many clauses that allow, and even require, the destruction of civil complaints records, department investigations or disciplinary actions after a previously negotiated period of time.
This is one of the revelations made by hackers, supposedly of Anonymous, who breached the Fraternal Order of Police website and leaked documents, including 67 contracts of the union that represents 325,000 law enforcement officers.
In 33% of the 67 leaked contracts negotiated between cities and police unions, there are clauses that “prevent public access to complaints and disciplinary records, and enable the destruction of complaints and disciplinary records.”
According to a The Guardian analysis of the leaked material, they contain “numerous recurring clauses that slow down misconduct investigations, prevent public access to complaints and disciplinary records, and enable the destruction” of such documents. Those are some of the numerous practices that seek to keep improprieties secret as well as protecting the perpetrators’ identities.
It is true that police work has its own peculiarities, and it’s only natural that a union would seek to protect its members, but it’s another thing entirely that they be treated like no other employee – not even in the private sector. Destroying records that may harm the employee after several years, or even months, is unacceptable. Even more so if what is being covered up is civilian abuse.
It would also be unreasonable to make anyone’s work contracts available to the public, but they do need to be accessible and protected in case they are needed, for example in the courts.
The solution is that police contracts should be subjected to the same level of transparency as any other public employee. The leak confirmed what many suspected about the police’s ability to investigate its own wrongdoings. Now we know that in many cases the conflict of interest blocking them is a contract that seeks to prevent bad cops from being investigated. This is how you lose public trust.