Russell Hebets Jan. 8, 2016

The stories we have witnessed in the media involving police killings are disturbing and divisive. Many feel that the police are just doing their job and it’s the accused that are provoking and endangering police lives. However many more are concerned that police are crossing the line too many times and too soon because they can get away with it, and the numbers connected to these incidents confirm this suspicion.

Last year over 1000 people were killed by police. Incidents of police brutality were recorded numerous times, including here in Denver. Yet in the majority of these situations very little police discipline was handed down. Were all these actions justified? Or is something else at play?

This is the question reform activists have been asking and one answer to this question has to do with police contracts. Across the nation, police officers belong to unions and those unions have contracts which outline officers’ rights. These unions help to guarantee officers certain protections, and provide benefits that help officers cope with the many challenges of their jobs. However, there are provisions in many of these contracts that seem to undermine investigations in officer involved shootings.

For example, officers do not have to be interrogated immediately after an accident occurs and when interrogation does happen, the time to do so is limited. Even armchair investigators know that interviews are better done sooner than later, for as long as it takes. Furthermore, there are no civilian oversight committees. In other words, cops police themselves. Complaints against officers made after a certain point, usually 6 months, are often disqualified. Additionally, these complaints, even when well documented, rarely make it into personnel files. Officers on leave for misconduct still receive their pay and if there are settlements with victims, it is paid from municipal funds.

This has led to a frustrating and volatile situation with victims and their supporters. And in the age of social media, it is hard to reconcile what we see on video with what prosecutors and grand juries are declaring.

So what will help? One answer is Check The Police. This is a database which reviews and assesses police contracts nationwide to find these issues and address them. By pointing out very specific provisions that undermine investigations, activists hope to bring awareness to the problem and also provide actionable answers. 

No one is saying police are all bad or that union contracts are unnecessary.  In fact what motivates reform is the fundamental belief that police should protect and serve and that civilians can and should hold police accountable to this task. By working to improve contracts, we can better protect not only the public but the many good cops out there whose reputations are compromised by misconduct and a system that seems to allow it.