Superb policies are of little use if they are not enforced. Public trust rests, in large part, on whether the public sees that their public servants are acting in accordance with those policies and are held accountable when they do not.
Through elections, the public holds mayors, and by extension police chiefs they select, accountable for the conduct of those who serve in police departments. But the chiefs’ authority to hold officers accountable is frequently undermined by unnecessary procedural obstacles imposed by collective bargaining agreements and state statutes. We should not complain when a reform-minded chief is unable to produce the results that we want if we do not remove these obstacles and provide that chief with authority to carry out that mission. Cities and police departments must adopt policies that strengthen transparency and accountability to better achieve the appropriate balance between the public’s interests and legitimate officer due process concerns.
Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive approach with attention to departmental policies, collective bargaining agreements, and state law.
Police departments should have policies that increase transparency and standards of accountability. Departments should also put their policies online and make them available to the public. With regard to specific policies and procedures to help departments achieve robust transparency and accountability, we recommend the following:
- Departments should assign final disciplinary authority to the police chief.
- Departments should have public complaint processes that make filing a complaint open to all.
- Departments should have policies on officer investigations that clearly define the procedures for carrying out the investigations and seeing them through to completion, even if an officer separates from the department.
- Departments should regularly release to the public, in accordance with relevant state laws, data on disciplinary actions and decisions, including those made by arbitrators.
- Departments should have policies that require supervisors to conduct ongoing reviews of stops, searches, arrests, and uses of force.
- Departments should require body-worn cameras and develop policies for the review, release, and preservation of footage.
- Departments should implement an early-intervention system to identify at-risk officers to help support their wellbeing.
Collective Bargaining and State Law
Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with police unions often set the ground rules for officer investigations and disciplinary proceedings. Officers must have due process, but CBAs often contain provisions that go far beyond necessary protections and impede a department’s ability to investigate misconduct allegations and, in a timely fashion, hold officers accountable. So too, some state law provisions hinder accountability by mandating procedures, similar to those in the CBAs, that impede investigations.
Cities should stop the practice of bargaining away management rights as a trade-off for raises sought by police unions. At the very least, CBAs must vest in the chiefs authority to hold officers accountable for following applicable law and policy.
To improve that alignment of responsibility and authority, we recommend:
- Cities should negotiate CBAs that have fair and efficient procedures for officer investigation and discipline.
- Cities should negotiate CBAs that require officer cooperation in investigations.
- Cities should vest authority for final disciplinary decisions in the leadership of the department.
- Cities should advocate for the reform of state laws that are inconsistent with these recommendations.
State Certification Boards
State-level officer certification provides a mechanism for ensuring that police officers meet appropriate standards of background qualification and conduct. The sanction of decertification can complement departmental discipline. To ensure effective state-level certification systems, we recommend:
- Establishing such systems in the few places where they do not exist;
- Requiring officer background checks to include checks for prior decertification;
- Authorizing decertification when an officer is terminated or receives serious discipline for acts that show a reckless disregard for public safety or involve dishonesty;
- Establishing state decertification databases and requiring reporting to national officer decertification databases; and
- Including civilians on certification boards.