In October of 2018, an arbitrator ordered Florida’s Opa-locka Police Department to rehire Sergeant German Bosque. This was the sixth time that the city had attempted to fire Sergeant Bosque, and the sixth time an arbitrator ordered the city to rehire Bosque on appeal. There were good reasons to fire Bosque. Over the years, Opa-locka’s internal affairs office had investigated Bosque 40 times, including 16 times for battery as well as accusations of using excessive force, stealing from suspects, misusing firearms, defying direct orders, and lying and falsifying police reports. In 2012, he engaged in an unauthorized police chase that left four civilians dead. The department alleged that, while off duty, Bosque engaged in domestic violence and stalking. And at one point, the department discovered “a baggie of cocaine, a crack pipe, an empty vodka bottle, a counterfeit $20 bill and a stash of confiscated driver’s licenses in Bosque’s squad car.” Yet somehow, through all of this, Sergeant Bosque not only stayed out of jail, but also kept his job.
How could an officer who engaged in such a pattern of serious wrongdoing stay on the force? The answer, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, was that despite his dubious distinction of having the most disciplinary actions in the State of Florida, Bosque’s “police union has always provided Bosque lawyers with formidable expertise in exploiting arbitration clauses written into union contracts.” Put simply, Bosque was protected from even the most basic accountability for his wrongdoing, in part, by the terms of his collective bargaining agreement, which allowed him to challenge his terminations in arbitration. As numerous media reports and some scholarly examinations have shown, arbitration procedures are common in police union contracts and frequently result in reductions or reversals of terminations. Contracts commonly give third- party arbitrators expansive authority to conduct new hearings to re-evaluate the facts of the case against the officer, the proportionality of the punishment, and the sufficiency of the procedural protections the officer received pre-termination.
Bosque and officers like him are able to evade accountability because of contract provisions police unions negotiate with communities, contracts that can make it unreasonably difficult to discipline officers. These arbitration clauses are just one of many ways that collective bargaining agreements can impact police accountability efforts.
Police unions (like any union) serve an important role in negotiating fair wages and benefits for their members. But too often—as civil rights activists, scholars, and the press have shown—police embed disciplinary procedures in collective bargaining agreements that impede community oversight as well as internal agency reform. In some places, police unions have effectively leveraged their political power to obtain unreasonable protections from accountability, including guaranteed delays and access to evidence before interrogations related to misconduct, limits on civilian oversight authority, and the destruction of disciplinary records. Police unions have also used their political power to lobby for so-called “law enforcement officer bills of rights” (LEOBR) in at least twenty states, which impose some of these same restrictions on police accountability statewide.
In light of emerging evidence, states and localities should consider three possible reforms. First, where permissible, communities should increase transparency in police union contract negotiations. This would discourage communities from caving in to police unions behind closed doors. And it would encourage elected local officials to take police union contracts seriously, rather than allowing unions to dictate so much of what constitutes public safety. Second, states should consider legislatively removing disciplinary procedures from the list of topics appropriate for collective bargaining. Third, states should repeal or roll back some of the unreasonably restrictive portions of their law enforcement officer bills of rights that stand in the way of reform. All of these measures could provide an important check on the power of police unions and force officers to be more accountable to the communities that they serve.