After a summer of protests (and in some cities, riots) stemming from police shootings of African Americans, policing practices have emerged as a front-burner legislative issue for the fall. Given the Mackinac Center’s influential role in Michigan criminal justice reform over the last several years, we have been invited into the conversation about how our state can improve.
While other organizations have focused on officer training and law enforcement techniques, we have identified police disciplinary processes as an essential topic for legislative action.
In 2016, an academic effort known as the Police Union Contract Project compiled the collective bargaining agreements between police unions and local governments in 81 of America’s 100 largest cities, including Detroit. One year later, law professor Stephen Rushin published a Duke Law Review article that included data on contracts in 178 cities, including Lansing and Grand Rapids. And in August, Campaign Zero launched a website containing police contracts of almost 600 cities, including almost 30 in Michigan.
All of these researchers have flagged several categories of contract provisions, commonly included in police collective bargaining agreements, which limit the ability of communities to effectively discipline police officers accused of misconduct.
In late June, the Mackinac Center commissioned a survey of Michigan voters to assess their attitudes toward such policies. Most of the anti-disciplinary provisions, it found, were unpopular across party lines.
For example, the city of East Pointe’s contract stipulates that “written reprimands shall remain in the employee's file for a period up to but not more than two years at the discretion of the issuing supervisor.” The Grand Rapids contract allows an officer to request that written counseling records be removed after one year. In our survey, 62% of Michigan voters said that disciplinary records should permanently remain in an officer’s personnel file. Another 26% supported a retention period of at least 3 to 5 years.
The Detroit police officers contract requires that an officer receive “48 hours written notice prior to an investigative interview in a non-criminal investigation, except in cases of emergency.” But only 20% of our respondents believed such advance notice was appropriate; 67% said it was not.
Many police contracts, including those of Flint and Saginaw, require the local governing body to pay for an officer’s legal fees during a misconduct investigation, as well as the costs of any legal judgment or settlement. This is sometimes achieved through buying professional liability insurance for the officers. But only 15% of the voters we surveyed thought it appropriate for local governments to bear the full cost of an officer’s legal fees in an investigation, and only 16% thought they should bear the full cost of a judgment or settlement involving misconduct. More than 80% believed the officer’s bargaining unit should cover at least half of such costs, if not the entire bill.
Michigan voters agree on the need for police and law enforcement in their communities – only 21% of Michigan voters and 31% of self-identified Democrats supported spending less on it. And by a three-to-one margin, our respondents perceived police abuse as a problem nationally but not in their communities.
Our law enforcement officers have an extremely important and difficult job, and we as citizens give them extensive authority – including the use of deadly force when necessary – to carry it out. We should expect appropriate sanctions against officers who abuse that authority, but collective bargaining has too often skewed the disciplinary processes to impede those sanctions. Too many municipal officials have been too timid or compromised by politics to reopen their police contracts and remove provisions that shield bad behavior and bad actors. State legislators, then, are now obligated to preempt those provisions statewide.